Union rejects Lamont's nursing home offer; National Guard ready for strike

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Gov. Ned Lamont has asked the head of the Connecticut National Guard to put 50 troops on standby to help oversee the 33 facilities that would be affected by 3,400 nursing home workers walking off the job Friday morning.

Gov. Ned Lamont has asked the head of the Connecticut National Guard to put 50 troops on standby to help oversee the 33 facilities that would be affected by 3,400 nursing home workers walking off the job Friday morning.

Matthew Brown / Hearst Connecticut Media

A strike of thousands of nursing home workers seemed all the more likely Tuesday evening as the union representing them rejected a $280 million offer from the state to help the industry and struggling workers.

With less than three days before a 6 a.m. Friday walkout deadline at 33 nursing homes, the homes and state officials worked to ensure enough staff would be in place to care for affected residents.

Gov. Ned Lamont put National Guard troops on standby to help the state Department of Public Health supervise and to ensure contingency plans submitted by the nursing home operators are adequate.

To end a standoff and avert a strike, the Lamont administration on Monday announced a “historic” proposal, totaling $280 million, mostly in added Medicaid spending. The package would boost the nursing homes, which face big financial losses due to the pandemic, and workers, who are fighting for higher wages, benefits, and staffing levels.

The spending package was “the best and final offer we would be presenting,” the governor’s chief of staff, Paul Mounds said Tuesday evening, repeating what he and budget director Melissa McCaw told SEIU District 1199, the union threatening the strike with 3,400 workers Friday. Another 600 workers at six additional homes have authorized a strike for May 28.

Less than an hour earlier, Rob Baril, president of District 1199, had issued a statement rejecting the package. Baril said the Lamont administration’s offer did not “provide the funding needed to right the wrongs of COVID-19 and to correct decades of chronic devaluation of the nursing home labor sector, whose workers are majority Black, Brown and White working-class women.”

The 4.5 percent wage increases for workers, which would total $150 million over next two years, “would not be sufficient to establish a $20 per hour minimum in the union contracts for certified nursing assistants,” Baril said, and “for hundreds of housekeeping, dietary and laundry support workers, the proposed raise would not even keep up with the state’s minimum wage laws.”

The nursing home industry also is demanding more money.

Nursing homes

The following are the nursing homes where workers are threatening to strike, with the companies that own them:

Genesis

Kimberly Hall North (Windsor)

Kimberly Hall South (Windsor)

Fox Hill (Vernon)

Harrington Court (Colchester)

Reservoir (West Hartford)

Glendale (Naugatuck)

Arden House (Hamden)

Madison House (Madison)

Meriden Center (Meriden)

Willows (New Haven)

St. Joseph's Center (Trumbull)

Icare

Chelsea Place (Hartford)

Parkville (Hartford)

Trinity Hill (Hartford)

Touchpoints - Wintonbury (Bloomfield)

Touchpoints - Chestnut (East Windsor)

Fresh River - Kettlebrook (East Windsor)

Touchpoints - Bidwell (Manchester)

Westside (Manchester)

60 West Secure Care (Rocky Hill)

Touchpoints (Farmington)

Silver Springs (Meriden)

RegalCare

Salmon Brook (Glastonbury)

Torrington

Waterbury

New Haven

West Haven

Greenwich

Southport

Autumn Lake

New Britain

Cromwell

Bucks Hill (Waterbury)

Norwalk

Matt Barrett, president and CEO of the Connecticut Association of Health Care Facilities, an association of 150 skilled nursing facilities and assisted living communities, said the industry needed $312 million immediately to cover increased costs due to decreased occupancy during the pandemic — and historic Medicaid underfunding. Even that wouldn’t cover the costs to settle collective bargaining issues, he said.

Barrett pushed back against Mounds’ characterization of the $280 million proposal as the administration’s best and final offer, saying state lawmakers and the administration are still debating the state budget.

“Everyone should stay engaged in the appropriations process and stay at the bargaining table and stay on the job and do everything we can to avert a strike until there’s a final answer on appropriations,” he said by phone Tuesday night.

In addition to the $150 million for wages, Lamont’s proposal would temporarily boost the Medicaid reimbursement for nursing home operators by 10 percent for a total of $86 million; provide a one-time pension enhancement of $19.5 million, and appropriate $25 million in federal stimulus money for hazard pay and workforce development training.

Baril called the training and retirement proposals “completely inadequate for an impoverished workforce that carried the nursing home industry on its shoulders through an extremely dangerous public health emergency.”

“Workers have suffered untold trauma in the last year with thousands of resident deaths and nearly two dozen worker fatalities in our union,” he said.

The same day the administration presented the nursing home relief package, the governor authorized Major Gen. Francis J. Evon Jr. to “immediately call up a sufficient force of members of the armed forces of the state” to support the state Department of Public Health’s response to a potential strike Friday.

The 50 National Guard troops would not replace the workers going on strike but help public health officials in their oversight of the 33 nursing homes that would be affected.

The strike contingency plans submitted by nursing home operators include retaining temporary workers through staffing agencies, Deidre Gifford, acting Public Health commissioner, said Tuesday night. Her staff is following up with the agencies to ensure enough workers would be on site to care for nursing home residents if a strike occurs.

As part of that review, operators have to provide the department with names, documentation showing their licensure status or certification, and the shifts they would be working.

“We won’t approve the plans until we have that level of detail,” Gifford said.

In some cases, it’s been challenging for operators to find additional workers, but Gifford said she’s confident they will be able to secure the level of staff needed. Operators can be subject to “large fines” if they don’t submit adequate staffing plans to DPH, she said.

Barrett said the plans include entering into non-refundable replacement worker contracts to secure staffing if employees don’t show up to work. He said some workers could have to be flown in from other states, adding to the costs. Nursing homes are responsible for transportation and lodging of replacement workers and other costs such as increased security.

“These increased costs would be paid for by state taxpayers under Connecticut’s Medicaid program,” he said.

In the event of a strike, DPH staff and National Guardsmen would be on site at the nursing homes to monitor the replacement workers to ensure all safety protocols are followed, Gifford said. Nursing homes would be required to continue COVID-19 protocols, including testing and vaccinations.

Additional National Guard troops could be activated to help. Gifford said relocating residents would be a last resort.

The workers threatening a strike include registered nurses, licensed practical nurses, certified nursing assistants, receptionists, dietary aides, housekeeping and laundry staff.

In addition to the nursing home employees, about 2,000 group home workers, also from SEIU District 1199, voted to authorize a strike effective May 21 — with many of the same issues as the nursing home workers.

About 4,000 residents live at the nursing homes subject to Friday’s strike, according to David Dearborn, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Health.

julia.bergman@hearstmediact.com