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Union officials, employees, and nursing home operators are decrying a state Department of Public Health directive requiring more than 7,500 nursing home workers hired during the pandemic to be fingerprinted by July 20 or lose their jobs.

Amid concerns for the safety of residents in an industry that is already short-staffed due to the pandemic, union officials and nursing home officials want the deadline moved back.

“We are more than happy to comply with this directive, but given the backlog volume, we have concerns there may not be capacity to handle the number of fingerprints required by July 20,” Lori Mayer, a spokesperson for Genesis Healthcare, said. The company was running more than 20 nursing homes in Connecticut at the start of the pandemic.

“In addition, nursing homes across the state are hiring new employees every day, which also requires fingerprinting,” Mayer said. “We remain hopeful that the Department of Public Health will provide an extension.”

The fingerprint requirements for new employees hired during the pandemic were relaxed by an executive order issued by Gov. Ned Lamont due to worker shortages. Many police departments cancelled fingerprinting services when tightening public access at the height of the pandemic. 

Executive Order 7K is set to expire with the rest of Lamont’s emergency pandemic orders, the DPH directive said. It is instructing workers to set up fingerprinting appointments at one of 11 state police barracks by July 20.

“Workers who have not been fingerprinted by July 20, 2021, will not be eligible for continued employment in direct-care positions unless they are fingerprinted before the executive order expires,” said Chris Boyle, DPH spokesman. 

Workers can sign up for 10-minute slots at the state police barracks. Boyle pointed to a state law that requires newly hired direct-care employees of long-term care facilities to obtain “fingerprint-based criminal history records checks” as part of their background check to be hired.

“The statutory requirement for a background check is not new and is an important measure to ensure the health and safety of nursing home residents,” Boyle said. “We strongly encourage employers and their 7K workers to book appointments now.”

Boyle says 3,000 of the 7,500 workers have been fingerprinted.

Employees understand the need for the requirement and embrace it, said Doris Tavares, who has worked for six years as a certified nursing assistant at the St. John Paul II Center.

Between that facility and the Glen Hill Center, both owned by Genesis Healthcare and located in Danbury, at least 30 employees will be affected by the deadline, Tavares said.

“We are struggling with staffing now, so imagine if they are taken away,” she said.

Tavares and union officials contend that workers will not be able to get their fingerprints done in time due to their work schedules and the location of the state police barracks which are often not on public transit lines. 

To comply with the state directive, the workers at the two Danbury facilities must travel to the state police office in Southbury on weekdays between 8 a.m. and 4:20 p.m. when many are on the job, said Rob Baril, president of the New England Health Care Workers Union, SEIU District 1199.

“When these workers were hired, they passed a background check and other verification processes, but were specifically told not to submit their fingerprints due to the pandemic,” Baril said in a letter sent Friday to DPH Acting Commissioner Deidre Gifford. “These workers served during the height of the pandemic, many were sickened by COVID-19 due to lack of proper PPE and staffing. To now demand that they submit their fingerprints within a month or be terminated from their employment is not only disrespectful to their sacrifices during this crisis but will negatively impact the care provided in nursing homes.”

Baril is asking for an extension of the deadline to Sept. 20.

Nursing homes have been working with the DPH to address the backlog in fingerprinting, said Matt Barrett, president and chief executive officer of the Connecticut Association of Health Care Facilities and the Connecticut Center for Assisted Living. The nursing homes, like the unions, are advocating a deadline extension. 

Barrett said some state police locations are “reported to be unable to accommodate the demand for appointments.” He said that if the capacity issues aren’t resolved, an extension of the deadline is a better option than terminating employees.

“That would be too severe an outcome for nursing home employees,” Barrett said. “It would also be very harmful for nursing home residents because nursing homes in Connecticut continue to face a chronic staffing shortage. The staffing shortage has been so challenging that many are reporting an inability to accept new hospital admissions for lack of staffing.”