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Latest News - July 2012

July 5, 2012
Strike Begins at 5 HealthBridge Nursing Homes
Source: Hartford Courant
By: Mara Lee

Rosa Lozada visits her 78-year-old mother at Newington Health Care twice every day, and on Tuesday, the first day of a strike at Newington and four other HealthBridge-owned facilities in Connecticut, she stood with picketing workers and said she was dissatisfied with her mother's care.

Lozada said her mother Edelmira Colón had not been changed out of her nightgown or washed by 10 a.m.

But while some are calling for the workers to return to their jobs, the New Britain woman didn't blame the lapse on 175 certified nursing assistants, dietary and laundry workers and nurses who walked off the job.

"I know it's not fair what (HealthBridge managers) are doing, that's for sure," she said. "I feel like I'm starting again teaching these people to work with Mom. It's terrible."

Around the state, nearly 700 workers are on strike, in Milford, Danbury, Stamford and Westport. There's no picketing at Wethersfield Health Care Center, also a union-represented HealthBridge home, because that location is closing once its last resident is transferred or dies.

The picketing appeared to be orderly. A union spokeswoman said there were no police citations for obstructing traffic at any of the five sites.

The strike that started Tuesday marks the second time this year that New Jersey-based HealthBridge needed replacement workers, as it locked out its union staff in Milford for four months in order to pressure the union, District 1199 of the Service Employees International Union, to accept a contract with curtailed retirement and health benefits. The union did not agree, and last month, the company unilaterally imposed the benefit cuts while increasing pay.

"Our first priority must be the care of residents," company spokeswoman Lisa Crutchfield said in a written statement. "The affiliated Health Care Centers have a full complement of trained, certified, qualified replacement staff, ample supplies, and enhanced security on hand to make sure that the care we provide is in no way interrupted or diminished. Greeters are on hand to escort family members into and out of each Health Care Center."

HealthBridge, which also has three non-union nursing homes in Connecticut, said it is trying to bring costs more in line with their revenues, including Medicaid reimbursement rates.

Traditional pensions were frozen in favor of a smaller 401(k) plan, and workers were required to pay at least $765 more a year for health insurance, and thousands more for a family plan.

HealthBridge also gave workers a 9 percent pay rate increase this year, but eliminated the half-hour paid lunch — translating to a 2.2 percent overall pay increase for both four- and five-day-a-week employees.

At the Newington Health Care Center Tuesday morning, about 30 union members chanted slogans, such as: "HealthBridge, Shame on You!" and "What kind of people own this home? Greedy people own this home!"

Sandria Morgan, an LPN at Newington Health Care Center for the last 14 years, said it makes her angry that the company misrepresents what it's doing in ads claiming it gave a 9-percent raise.

"If they were giving us that raise, we wouldn't be out here," she said. She said the company also now requires her to pay $437 a month for health care that covers her and her two younger children. Under the previous contract, she paid nothing for the benefit. Her hourly pay is about $27.

"Most of us don't mind paying for the health care, but it's just too much," she said. "It's not right." She said if she were still paid 32 hours a week, was given a 2 percent raise, and had to pay $200 a month for a family health insurance plan, she wouldn't have gone on strike.

Lisa Crutchfield, a spokeswoman for HealthBridge, issued a statement Tuesday that said: "It is too bad that the union would choose to try to cause harm to the affiliated Health Care Centers and the employees who work at there by calling a strike rather than negotiate a fair and realistic contract through good faith bargaining."

The National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency charged with protecting workers' rights, has alleged that the company's demands — which HealthBridge ultimately implemented — were so drastic that the company was not engaging in good faith bargaining. It also alleges that the Milford lockout, and threats to close all the nursing homes if the union did not agree to concessions, were illegal. A trial on the charges is scheduled for September.

Crutchfield said HealthBridge's decision to implement the raises and benefit cuts "after 35 bargaining sessions and almost 17 months of negotiations failed to result in new agreements [is] fully legal, and the union knows it."

HealthBridge replaced the pension, into which it had been putting 8 percent of payroll, with a match to 401(k) contributions which, at its most generous, would be 0.75 percent of pay – less than the match offered by the overwhelming majority of employers that offer a match, according to the U.S Department of Labor.

At the picket line in Newington Tuesday, strikers quickly moved to the sides of the driveway and watched quietly as cars went in and out, occasionally yelling "Scabs go home!" Another 15 workers stood and sat in the shade. Uniformed security guards videotaped the strikers as the cars passed in and out.

An agency that specializes in replacement workers for strikes said on its Web site that it would pay $18 an hour — about 10 percent more than longtime CNAs make — and that the new hires would be expected to work 12-hour shifts at least six days a week. The ad said: "Lots of opportunity for overtime!" The agency also pays for hotel rooms for the workers, according to its Web site.

Tonya Beckford has been a certified nursing assistant on theAlzheimer'sunit for 15 years at the Newington facility. She works full-time, and is paid $16.40 an hour.

"I have four kids. The insurance alone, it's stressing me out," she said. She will be paid $300 a week in strike pay until the state decides whether the strikers qualify for unemployment benefits. She hopes the strike doesn't last long. "I'm going on the grace of my God that we're needed in there, not out here."

Beckford said she always cares for the same nine women. "My oldest, my most feistiest is 101. Just a joy," she said.

U.S. News and World Report ranks Newington five stars in quality, the highest ranking. "We're a five-star facility because of us out here walking, not because of management," she said.

Nita Desai began working at Newington in 1989, a year after she immigrated from India, speaking no English. She started as a CNA, and studied nursing online. She became an LPN, continued to go to school and became an RN, and is still in school, working on a master's degree.

The union secures good benefits for the workers, which means there's low turnover, Desai said. That's good for residents, too, she said.

Desai said she worries that the replacement workers are not turning the patients as they should, so they don't get bedsores. No complaints were made to the state Department of Public Health Tuesday, the department said.

Crutchfield said the five nursing homes "are open and are fully prepared to provide excellent health care throughout a strike of any duration."



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