The state is making contingency plans in the event that 2,500 nursing home workers in Connecticut go out on strike next month.
Department of Public Health officials said Tuesday in a news release that they are taking measures to make sure that staffing levels and care remain stable at Connecticut nursing homes that may be involved in a potential strike starting May 1.
Leaders and members of the New England Health Care Employees Union, District 1199 SEIU, said Monday at an event in the Legislative Office Building that workers are fighting for wage increases, better benefits and adequate staffing levels at nursing homes.
If they don’t see progress made to put more funding into the next biennial budget, workers said they will go out on strike. Warning notices went out to 20 Connecticut nursing facilities this past weekend.
“We’re facing a lot of challenges, and we need help,” said Careene Reid, a unionized certified nursing assistant in Hartford.
Public health officials say a labor action of this size could impact nearly 3,000 nursing home patients. To prepare for that, the department is reviewing and approving credentials for all replacement workers that may be hired by nursing facilities who experience employee losses.
The department would also have to perform daily inspections at nursing facilities to make sure standards of safety and patient care didn’t suffer during a strike, officials said.
“We want to reassure families of patients who might be impacted that we will be vigilant and do what is necessary to make sure your loved ones are receiving proper care for the duration of this labor action,” Commissioner Renee Coleman-Mitchell said in a statement.
Federal census data show that about 70 percent of Connecticut nursing home residents and patients use Medicaid, a program funded by state and federal dollars. Union leaders said the state needs to put more money into that program, which could help nursing homes raise pay, acquire more staff and retain workers.
Union president Rob Baril called on Gov. Ned Lamont and legislators to add four percent funding increases to the budget in 2019 and 2020.
“Those who believe that health care workers deserve dignity, that the elderly deserve the best, need to take a stand in making sure that the budget reflects those commitments,” he said.
Reid makes $15.25 an hour after working 10 years as a full-time CNA, and said she’s had only one small raise since 2015.
She also works a part-time job to make more money to support her family. And for all the time and effort she and her colleagues put into their jobs, Reid said they deserve better.
“It is very hard to go on strike right now, it’s hard,” she said. “It’s not a thing the union wants, but the money’s not right.”
Matthew V. Barrett, president and CEO of the Connecticut Association of Health Care Facilities and the Connecticut Center for Assisted Living, says a historical lack of funding for nursing facilities “has the potential, over time, to become a crisis.”
He said support for staffing at nursing homes is crucial at a time when more people are aging and dependent on services.
“The nursing home population is sicker and more challenging today than the population a decade ago,” he said.
But Barrett and the association urged employees to stay on the job while they fight for more funding instead of going on strike. He said disruption in staffing can negatively impact nursing home residents and cause them stress and trauma.
A Kaiser Health News report last year showed that out of 188 Connecticut nursing facilities, 12 had staffing levels below average. Advocates say staffing deficits leave patients and residents more at risk of suffering accidents and falls.
Some workers like Marine Senior, who works at a Hartford nursing facility, blame the nursing home owners and operators for the wage and staffing issues. She said it’s unfair when owners prioritize other things instead, or when they don’t give raises when they can.
“Every time you buy a facility, that means money is in the budget,” Senior said. “So where is our money?”
But Barrett said nursing home operators and owners don’t have the money to completely fund wage and staff increases. He said they, too, rely on a large portion of state and federal funding through Medicaid.
Although workers are prepared to strike, Jesse Martin, union vice president of nursing homes, said that is still a last resort. To avoid a strike, Martin said they hope to see progress toward solving the funding issues in the next two weeks.