SEIU Protect (Shana Sureck/ photo)

As a strike deadline looms, a Yale law clinic the and New England Health Care Workers Union, SEIU District 1199 issued a report Monday that indicates state oversight of nursing homes was lacking, likely leading to more deaths, the authors said.

The report which used Department of Public Health documents found 12 nursing homes with the highest number of COVID-19 deaths were not fined and that less than a third of nursing homes were issued some type of fine or violation. 

An estimated 3,875 nursing home residents have died from the virus since the pandemic began in March 2020.

“There was a direct correlation between low staffing or bad staffing and death rates,” Jessie Martin, vice president with District 1199 said during a press conference unveiling the report Monday.

The union sought the help of Yale Law School’s Worker and Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic to draft the report as an aid to legislators as talks with the state and nursing home owners continue in advance of a planned strike Friday at 33 homes throughout the state.

The union is conducting negotiations with 64 facilities including 51 that have been operating with an expired collective bargaining agreement, Martin said.

State officials are contesting the findings of the report, saying that the DPH with the help of the National Guard conducted hundreds, possibly thousands, of inspections that led to sanctions and closed at least three nursing homes that were found to have serious violations related to infection control and staffing.

According to the report, 170 homes where 3,398 residents died have no online documents publicly available related to inspections during the pandemic – which is likely because DPH has not updated its website.

“Even if some of these facilities were cited or fined, the fact that none were posted publicly means that family members of residents were denied vital information about potentially dangerous life-threatening conditions in these facilities,” the report stated.

The report was issued as the union is gearing up for a strike at 33 homes Friday that will last “as long as necessary” for Gov. Ned Lamont and nursing home administrators to understand what employees need, Martin said.

Friday’s strike will 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.

Notices for strikes on May 28 at six more homes are likely going out Monday, which would bring the total of District 1199 workers on strike to more than 4,000, Martin said.

Gov. Ned Lamont’s budget director Melissa McCaw wrote SEIU 1199 and the nursing home association Monday to tell them that the state expects to include nearly $300 million in stabilization funds, wage enhancements, hazard pay, and retirement contributions. 

“This is an unprecedented amount of financial support in a two-year period never seen in Connecticut’s history,” McCaw and Acting Public Health Commissioner Deidre Gifford wrote. 

“With this funding, nursing homes will be required to provide wage supports including increasing employee wages,” the letter said. The $149.5 million in the biennial budget represents a 4.5% increase in wages for nursing home employees, the letter said.

“For comparison – over the last 14 years – rates have increased by an average of just 1.1%,” McCaw and Gifford said. “This proposal is four times the average rate increase over that period and would be unprecedented.”

The state is also offering a temporary 10% Medicaid increase for homes that meet certain criteria, a one-time $19.5 million pension enhancement, $12 million or hazard pay in fiscal year 2022, money for workforce development and access to the Cares4Kids state child care program for nursing home workers in a family of three that make under $60,810.  

The administration is hoping to avoid a strike.

The union is seeking more state funding through Medicaid increases and other means so that nursing home owners can provide better wages, better health care and better protections for nursing home workers who have struggled with short staffing, inadequate pay and a lack of personal protective gear throughout the pandemic.

District 1199 also wants better oversight of nursing homes by the DPH through the passage of proposed bill SB 1030 which would set staffing requirements and other guidelines for state regulation of nursing homes.

The current system of oversight needs to change, Martin and Sen. Saud Anwar, D-East Hartford, a physician who worked through the pandemic.

“When the nursing homes were evaluated by DPH they only talked to administrators, not workers, and if they did talk to workers it was in front of administrators,” Anwar said. “This clearly failed. We need an independent assessment.”

The staff to resident ratio is based on antiquated guidelines and are not adequate for infection control, Anwar said. “While we have seen the majority of people who have died have been in long term care facilities, we have not addressed the issues moving forward,” he said.

Union officials claim the report backs up what workers have been saying since the start of the pandemic – staffing and PPE shortages and a lack of infection control practices at the homes led to increased deaths.

Nursing home residents made up 47% percent of the state’s 8,084 COVID-19 deaths since March of 2020 as of May 1.

As a certified nursing assistant, Tanya Bedford routinely cares for 15 to 17 residents with Alzheimer’s, which is leading to corners cut while trying to make sure everyone is safe, she said.

“I’m struggling to feed 17 people breakfast in the allotted time and then it’s on to lunch,” she said. “Everything we do is to make sure they are safe and secure.” 

“But we are abusing the residents because we can’t give them the care they deserve,” she added.