SEIU District 1199 workers on the picket line Credit: Christine Stuart /

A recent study published by Health Affairs found that unionized nursing homes had lower resident COVID-19 mortality rates. 

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, nursing home residents have accounted for roughly one of every six COVID-19 deaths in the United States. Nursing homes have also been very dangerous places for workers, with more than one million nursing home workers testing positive for COVID-19 as of April 2022. 

The report, which looked at the period from June 8, 2020, through March 21, 2021, concluded that “labor unions may play an important role in improving workplace safety, with potential benefits for both nursing home workers and residents.”

The study looked at mortality rates and worker COVID infections in union homes and nonunion homes and concluded there were few deaths in the union nursing homes. 

Matt Barrett, president and CEO of the Connecticut Association of Health Care Facilities / Connecticut Center for Assisted Living, said they haven’t reviewed the findings of the report. 

“However, independent, academic researchers from institutions like Harvard Medical School, Brown Public Health and the University of Chicago have consistently found that COVID-19 outbreaks in nursing homes are primarily correlated with the spread of the virus in the surrounding community where the nursing home is located,” Barrett said. “Specific facility characteristics, such as ownership, such as for profit or not for profit tax status, and even government citations or ratings have not been found to be the determining factors.”

Jesse Martin, vice president of SEIU 1199, said the reason union homes were safer during the pandemic is because union workers are not afraid to speak up and they have a working relationship with the administrators of these homes. 

Martin said he wasn’t surprised by the findings. 

“Unionized nursing homes are built to hold their employers accountable,” he said. “Because they’re not scared of retaliation.” 

He also attributed it to the “unity of a unionized workplace.” 

He said when there is scarcity of supplies, scarcity of staff, “they work with each other to make sure the work is done the right way.” 

He also said union workers knew how to file Occupational Safety and Health complaints. 

Barrett said, “Government agencies, like the CDC and the Government Accounting Office also shows that asymptomatic transmission in areas of high community spread, especially prior to the wide availability of COVID-19 testing, explains much more than facility specific characteristics.”

He said regardless of whether a home was union or nonunion these workers “are owed a debt of gratitude for their courageous work in protecting their residents and co-workers, especially early on in the pandemic when very little was known about how the virus was spreading, during a time when there was limited testing and personal protective equipment shortages.”

Martin said the new contracts they negotiated with some of these homes require the workers to be provided with the proper PPE or given a different assignment. 

These new contracts which included higher pay and benefits also “documented commitments to high quality and last supplies of PPE,” Martin said. 

Martin said they are investing time and education with their members so “these problems never happen again.” 

Barrett said regardless of union affiliation Connecticut nursing home employees have some of the highest vaccination and booster rates in the nation “with no notable distinction between those in membership with a labor union or those not in membership. Both groups of employees have done extraordinary work during this once in a lifetime pandemic.”