Courtesy of SEIU

The New England Health Care Workers Union, SEIU District 1199, sent strike notices to 33 nursing homes Friday as negotiations with owners and the state on increased wages and better benefits have stalled.

The strike will begin at 6 a.m., May 14 and involve more than 3,400 union employees who work as certified nursing assistants, licensed practical nurses, nurses and in other positions if progress isn’t made in negotiations, according to union officials.

“Negotiations have been limited because of a lack of state funding to this industry,” Jesse Martin, a vice president of District 1199, said.  “We plan on negotiating in good faith during and after the work stoppage. Without appropriate funding from the state, negotiations have been difficult.”

The union is conducting negotiations with 64 private, for-profit facilities including 51 that have been operating with an expired collective bargaining agreement, Martin said. Of the 90% of workers in the 33 homes that have voted, 98% voted in favor of a strike, he said. Several more homes are expected to vote to strike in the next few weeks.

By law, the union must notify the nursing homes at least 10 days before a strike is planned. The 33 homes are owned by Genesis Healthcare, iCare Health Network, RegalCare Management Group and Autumn Lake Healthcare.

The union is seeking incremental wage increases to $20 an hour by 2023 for CNAs and $30 an hour or LPNs and nurses, affordable health care, affordable retirement plans, access to high-quality PPE and safe staffing levels, Martin said.

“These members who suffered tremendously because of the pandemic continue to live in poverty,” Martin said. “Nursing home work is now the most dangerous work in the country because of COVID-19,” he said. “If you are doing the most dangerous job in the United States, you deserve to be paid at a level that takes you out of poverty.”

The union has lost 16 Connecticut nursing home workers to COVID-19 and thousands of others have been sickened by the virus, Martin said.

COVID-19 quickly spread through nursing homes at the start of the pandemic with more than 14,070 residents contracting the virus. As of Tuesday, nursing home residents made up 47% percent of the state’s 8,084 COVID-19 deaths since March of 2020.

According to state figures, 4,920 nursing home staff tested positive for COVID-19 with four dying from the virus.

These companies got a lot of money from the state during COVID but we haven’t seen it. Gloria Pummer

Nedra Williams didn’t get adequate PPE in her job as a CNA at the Parkville Care Center in Hartford, which is owned by iCare, until an APRN took a picture of her wearing trash bags.

“It was absolutely not a choice,” Williams said when asked if she chose to wear trash bags rather than PPE.

“We’ve been working tremendously understaffed and underpaid with no PPE,” Williams said. “They hide the PPE. Nobody applies for positions so we are continuously working short every day.”

Williams is ready to go on strike along with Gloria Plummer, a CNA at Touchpoints in Bloomfield, also owned by iCare. “I think it’s important for us to strike because that’s the only voice we have,” Plummer said. “We’re sitting at the negotiation table and the boss isn’t meeting us at all. They are saying it’s because of the governor. These companies got a lot of money from the state during COVID but we haven’t seen it.”

The president of the state’s largest nursing home association is asking the workers to forgo the strike and remain at the bargaining table and caring for patients.

Matthew Barrett, president and CEO of the Connecticut Association of Health Care Facilities said the 151 nursing homes and assisted living facilities in the group have been warning the legislature and Gov. Ned Lamont about the urgent need to significantly increase nursing home funding.

“A major investment in nursing homes is needed now to bridge to the other side of the pandemic, and even more resources are needed to address collective bargaining issues,” Barrett said in a statement. “It is simply unreasonable and unrealistic to expect nursing home operators to enter into costly multiyear increased funding commitments to address collective bargaining issues without the resources needed to pay for those costs.”

State officials point to more than $240 million in state and federal aid paid to nursing homes since the pandemic began in March 2020.

In a letter to nursing home directors dated April 13, Office of Policy and Management Secretary Melissa McCaw acknowledged that the industry has faced serious financial challenges associated with the costs of the pandemic. The state will provide a 5% Medicaid increase to the homes that can attest to state Department of Public Health infection control protocols and standards from April to June 2021 and the state will continue to cover the cost of COVID-19 testing during the same period, McCaw said.

The state is hoping to avoid a strike by offering premium pay to workers and money from the federal American Rescue Plan Act to “retool” nursing homes, McCaw said Friday.

“We are actively engaged with the stakeholders,” McCaw said in a statement. “We recognize the hard work and diligence of nursing home staff before and, especially, during the pandemic, which is why we have used state and federal resources to, thus far, provide over $260 million of support to the nursing homes and staff; including rate increases, grant and hardship payments, support for testing and PPE.”

The state “most recently proposed an additional $12.5 million in premium pay in recognition of the staff’s tireless efforts to support our most vulnerable residents and another $20 million in ARPA funds for capital projects to retool nursing homes. It is our sincere hope a resolution will be reached before a strike begins,” McCaw said.    

The problem, according to Martin and other union officials, is that the state and federal money has not made its way to workers. Many of the homes have 80 to 99% of their residents paying for their stay with Medicaid funding from the state which has not dramatically increased, Martin said.

“The system relies on poverty wages which is an extreme devaluation of the work that is performed in nursing homes,” union spokesman Pedro Zayas said.

The workers are women, predominantly Black, brown and working class white women who often take several jobs to make ends meet, Martin said.