HARTFORD, CT — More than 2,500 workers at 20 nursing homes across the state have set a May 1 deadline to walk off their jobs unless the state addresses their stagnant wages and what they say are increasingly difficult working conditions.
Nursing home workers, SEIU 1199 New England leadership, legislators, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, and a faith leader held a news conference Monday at the Legislative Office Building to demand wage increases, accountability for staffing ratios, and protection for quality health care services for Connecticut’s nursing home residents.
Careene Reid, a certified nursing associate at the Trinity Center Hill nursing home, said she has worked for a decade in her position and is only making $15.12 an hour.
“Since 2015 I have received one raise of 27 cents (an hour),” Reid said, adding: “I spend more time working than I spend with my own family.”
Reid said she has had to take a second part-time job just to pay the bills. She added that staffing issues at the nursing home have also been an increasing problem.
“The only time we are fully staffed is when the state is in the building,” Reid said, a comment that drew loud applause from the jammed-packed room of union members who attended the press conference.
SEIU 1199 New England President Rob Baril said workers, the vast majority of which he said make between $13 and $15 an hour, have voted 1,449 to 78 to go out on strike if the union’s demand for 4-percent raises this year and next are not met by May 1.
The union estimates that the 4-percent raises would cost $40 million annually but quickly add that a large portion of the raises would be covered by Medicaid payments to nursing homes.
“Our members are united,” Baril said, adding: “To take a strike vote is never an easy thing.”
Wages for nursing home workers have grown, on average 2 percent, over the past four years.
Caregivers are also facing lower staffing ratios at nursing homes, and residents who require higher levels of care as the state of Connecticut’s population ages.
Pastor AJ Johnson, of the Urban Hope Refuge Church, revved up the crowd with chants in support of the workers, but added that the nursing home workers “were the backbone of our healthcare system.” He, like Baril, added that the majority of the workers were “women, and in particular, women of color.”
What seemed to emerge following the news conference was universal agreement that the workers deserved pay raises. However, what clearly is at odds is who is most responsible for coming up with the money — the nursing home owners, the legislature, or the governor, who didn’t include money for raises in his two-year budget.
Lamont’s press spokesperson, Maribel La Luz, said this about the contract dispute: “We sincerely appreciate and respect the valuable work completed in the nursing homes and hope productive discussions continue between the unions and the owners in order to avoid a strike.”
Office of Policy and Management spokesperson Chris McClure added: “Twice in the last four fiscal years the state has stepped up to increase wages and benefits for nursing home workers — at a time when most Medicaid providers have not seen any increases.”
“In 2016, the state increased wages to over 200 nursing homes and new plans to over 40 homes; increases of nearly 3% and costing a total of $38.6 million,” McClure said. “Then, just this past fall in fiscal year 2019, the state agreed to fund 2% wage increases to nursing homes at a cost of $23.2 million annually.”
McClure stressed that the state is not the employer, “but we work to ensure the funding is available to assist the owners and [is] used for the intended purpose of increasing wages for the staff.”
In response to the strike authorization vote, the Connecticut Association of Healthcare Facilities (CAHCF), an association of 160 nursing facilities and assisted living communities, issued a statement urging all nursing homes and collective bargaining employees to stay at the bargaining table and not strike.
CACHF President and CEO Matthew V. Barrett, said his association and its members have been sounding an alarm bell concerning the urgent need for increased funding to address a full range of staffing recruitment and retention, and operational needs, including collective bargaining concerns.
In addition to writing to Lamont, Barrett said his nursing home members have raised the issue of increased Medicaid funding for nursing homes at the General Assembly since the governor announced his two-year budget recommendation in February, which included some $90 million reductions to anticipated nursing home statutory and inflationary increases.
Barrett said: “It is simply unreasonable to expect nursing facility operators to enter into costly multi-year funding commitments to address collective bargaining issues without the Medicaid resources needed to pay for those costs.”
“Nursing home operators understand the critically important work and value of their hardworking employees, but Medicaid funding at current levels is insufficient to address the full range of issues, including the underlying issue of longstanding Medicaid underfunding for over a decade,” Barrett said.
Meanwhile, Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said it would be easier for the nursing home workers to get pay raises if the Democrats in the legislature had their priorities right when it came to giving out raises.
“As nursing home workers call for better wages, Democrats are continuing to approves contracts for a privileged group of state workers, including lawyers and former managers,” Fasano said. “The state has already approved $11.6 million over the next three years in new benefits for state employees who are new additions to state unions.”
Fasano added: “It is so easy to stand up at a podium and argue everyone deserves raises. But Democrats refuse to acknowledge that the choices they are making are hurting the very people they claim they want to help.”
One of those supporting the workers at the news conference, Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, was asked where the money would come from for the nursing home workers.
She said she wasn’t sure, but added that funding needed to become a priority.
“We need make a way out of of no way. We need the political will to get it done — the backbone to get it done,” Porter said.
Barrett said affected nursing homes are now in the process of strike contingency planning, including entering into non-refundable replacement worker contracts.
Barrett also said that planning and hiring replacement workers was a very costly proposition for the nursing home operators and the state of Connecticut as well.
Blumenthal said that Connecticut residents need to understand that this isn’t just a fight between the unions, the union workers, and the state of Connecticut.
“The people of Connecticut have a stake in this,” Blumenthal said, stating that as people age nursing homes become a necessary option for just about everyone to consider.
“You will, god willing, need this care one day,” Blumenthal said.