Workers at 6 more CT nursing homes say they are prepared to strike
The state and its largest healthcare workers union continued their game of brinksmanship Monday as Connecticut inched closer to a major strike involving nursing and group homes.
While SEIU District 1199 New England added six more nursing homes to the potential strike, lifting the tally to 39, the Senate leader of the legislature's budget-writing panel announced plans to funnel hundreds of millions of new state and federal dollars into related healthcare programs in the next budget cycle.
Also Monday, the union and Yale University unveiled a new study that concluded state health officials were lax in their regulation of nursing homes during the first year of the coronavirus pandemic.
Union leader: Strike is on Lamont's conscience
"I ask this governor one more time to please put money into his budget to fund the nursing homes, that we could get the better wages, that we could get more staffing," said union member Tanya Beckford, a certified nursing assistant with Newington Rapid Recovery Rehab Center.
Lamont, who did not include any additional state dollars for nursing homes in the budget he proposed in February, did recommend using $20 million in new federal pandemic relief next fiscal year to help nursing homes. But both industry and union officials say that's far short of what's needed to avert a work stoppage and cover the financial losses homes have suffered.
"This strike is going to be on him, on his conscience, because we don't want to do it," Beckford added. "But he's given us no choice."
About 3,400 workers at 33 nursing homes have already given notice of plans to strike on Friday. And Jessie Martin, vice president of 1199's nursing home division, said six more homes would send notices late Monday of plans to strike by May 28.
That would bring the total potential work stoppage among nursing homes to 39 facilities and 4,000 workers. Martin did not identify the homes that would be affected.
The union last week also warned the private, nonprofit agencies that run group homes for the state that more than 2,000 workers who serve the developmentally disabled and people suffering from mental illness or drug addiction plan to strike on May 21.
Citing low wages, poor benefits and inadequate working conditions, union officials say the coronavirus made longstanding inequities intolerable.
The union says 24 of its members — employed at nursing homes, group homes or in other situations — have died and hundreds of others contracted COVID-19, often because they were denied sufficient protective gear or were overworked due to inadequate staffing.
Yale study says state health officials went easy on nursing homes
To cement its case, the union and Yale University's Worker and Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic released a study Monday titled "We Were Abandoned."
The analysis, which Yale faculty and students conducted pro bono, concluded that compensation, staffing, safety and regulation issues "will continue to create perilous conditions for both workers and residents unless the state takes action."
The report concluded that state Department of Public Health regulators found that homes:
- Repeatedly failed to meet CDC recommendations for distribution and use of protective gear;
- Were deficient in coronavirus testing practices, training on infection control and quarantine procedures;
- And continue to face severe staffing shortages.
But at the same time, the report says, the Lamont administration "made little use of its primary enforcement tools" — namely, inspections and fines.
An analysis of all oversight documents "the DPH has made available" shows citations were issued for 34 incidents related to COVID-19 from March 2020 through this past February, resulting in a total of $98,081 in nursing home fines, Yale researchers wrote.
The average COVID-19-related penalty was $2,885, "significantly below" the statutory limit for class B violations. The average fine for class B violations unrelated to COVID-19 during the same period was $6,023, the report states.
A class A violation presents an immediate danger of death or serious harm to a nursing home patient while a class B violation presents a probability of death or serious harm.
Department of Public Health spokesman David Dearborn said the agency would review the analysis in detail, but he cited another study by Mathematic Policy Research that concluded the state made its decisions based on the available knowledge from government epidemiologists and other public health experts.
"As Gov. Lamont said when the Mathematica report was issued, 'Connecticut made some very critical decisions in our response to COVID-19 that saved lives and improved public health,'" Dearborn said.
The health department spokesman added that "DPH has worked in support of nursing home residents and staff and has also held owners accountable when necessary," conducting more than 3,000 inspection control surveys. That state work included collecting and distributing a massive stockpile of protective gear to safeguard healthcare workers during the pandemic, he said.
Matthew Barrett, president and CEO of the Connecticut Association of Health Care Facilities, which represents more than 140 nursing homes, said Monday that he had not seen the report and would review it before commenting.
Budget panel finds more dollars for nursing homes, nonprofits
The Lamont administration notes that it already has funneled nearly $160 million in new money into nursing homes over the past year. But only about 15% of that came from the state's coffers, with the bulk passed through from earlier rounds of federal pandemic relief.
The governor, who is more fiscally conservative than many of his fellow Democrats in the General Assembly, has felt growing pressure to crack into the state's swelling reserves to assist those hardest hit by the pandemic.
Barrett has said that while the aid granted by Lamont to date is appreciated, the nursing home industry needs an extra $312 million annually to offset the revenue losses and rising costs that have developed since the pandemic began — a figure that doesn't include any additional funds for enhanced pay or benefits for workers.
And the union estimates it would cost more than $200 million per year to boost all nursing home workers up to $20 per hour — the level of pay it is seeking — and to improve staffing levels.
It's unclear whether the union will get everything it seeks, given that Lamont and lawmakers also face growing pressure for more funding from nonprofit social service agencies, other programs that serve the poor, public colleges and universities, and cities and towns.
But Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, co-chairwoman of the legislature's Appropriations Committee, announced her panel is accelerating its plan to pump more dollars into nursing homes, group homes and other nonprofit social service operations.
The committee last month recommended an additional $22.2 million for nursing homes in the first year that begins July 1, and $48.6 million in 2022-23.
Osten, whose panel must submit a plan later this month on how to use more than $2.6 billion in new federal pandemic relief going directly to the state, said it will include roughly another $75 million for nursing homes — $40 million in the first year and $35 million in the second.
The committee already has endorsed an extra $50 million this fiscal year, and $30 million in each of the next two, for nonprofit social service agencies.
And Osten said the group now wants to put another $40 million in federal money and $10 million more in state money into both the 2021-22 and 2022-23 allocations.
Osten added all sides continue to talk and hope to avert a strike.
Tensions escalated on Sunday, though, when the mutual aid program to which all Connecticut nursing homes belong asked all facilities to provide an emergency update on available beds.
Sources close to the process said the Genesis nursing home chain had been struggling to secure temporary staffing to cover residents in the event of a strike.
But Genesis spokeswoman Lori Mayer said Monday that the company has guaranteed temporary staffing support, and Dearborn confirmed on behalf of the state health department that "the current outlook for temporary replacement staffing, should the strike go forward, has improved."
Barrett added that strikes are costly for the industry and that "it would be far wiser" to use state and federal resources to bolster funds for nursing home care, including to cover the issues raised by the union.
Keith M. Phaneuf is a reporter for The Connecticut Mirror (www.ctmirror.org). Copyright 2021 © The Connecticut Mirror.
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