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CT Gov. Lamont calls National Guard in preparation for healthcare worker strike

Danbury, CT - 8/25/20 - Gov. Ned Lamont looks on during a press conference at Danbury City Hall Tuesday morning regarding the recent spike in COVID-19 cases in Danbury (Brad Horrigan | [email protected]/TNS)

Top advisers to Gov. Ned Lamont told leaders of the union representing more than 4,000 health care workers who are preparing to strike that a $280 million package boosting wages and staffing levels at nursing homes is the state’s “best and final offer.”

“It provides for the highest wage increase ever seen for these front-line workers,’’ said Paul Mounds, Lamont’s chief of staff, at a press conference Tuesday evening. “We’ve been working on a dual track preparing if a strike occurs.”

But even as the Lamont administration pleaded with the union and nursing home owners to return to the bargaining table, they began planning to mitigate the impact of a strike. On Tuesday, the governor directed the National Guard to help ensure the safety of residents, including transferring them to another facility if needed.

Lamont authorized Maj. Gen. Francis J. Evon Jr., the adjutant general of the Connecticut National Guard, to “immediately call up a sufficient force of members of the armed forces of the state to support as needed the Department of Public Health in protecting the public health and safety in response to any potential work stoppage or strike of workers at long-term care facilities or other congregate settings in the state beginning on or about May 14.”

Officials stressed that residents will only be moved in an emergency.

The state is not a direct party to the negotiations but it licenses skilled nursing facilities, most of which receive hundreds of millions of dollars in funding primarily through the federal Medicaid program.

The union representing more than 4,000 health care workers who are preparing to strike denounced Lamont’s decision to mobilize the military.

“As the governor calls on the National Guard to support nursing homes during the strike, we call on him and his team to put those resources to better use by funding the services provided by nursing home workers,” said Rob Barile, president of SEIU District 1199 New England, which represents the workers. “The danger of the work and the low wages have created an extreme staffing crisis. This is an urgent matter of racial and economic justice.”

Lamont’s proposal to stave off the strike came after a weekend of unsuccessful negotiations between the union and nursing home owners. The showdown pits an industry devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic against the low-wage employees that have had to provide care as the virus raced through their workplace.

The union says its workers will walk off the job at 33 Connecticut nursing homes on Friday if an agreement is not reached. On Monday, a strike was also authorized at six additional nursing homes; that would take place on May 28.

The nursing home owners have filed contingency plans to keep residents safe with the state Department of Public Health, as they are required to do. Those plans, which are not available to the public, include bringing in replacement workers and moving patients if necessary.

But an official iCare Health Network said his company has retained replacement workers from three national staffing agencies and would not need to move any residents.

Deidre Gifford, the state’s acting public health commissioner, said department staff will be on site at nursing homes to monitor protocols and ensure rules are being followed.

“We are just beginning to turn the corner in our nursing homes after an unbelievably difficult year,” Gifford said. “It will be very very disruptive for residents and workers we hope it can be avoided.”

Mounds and Lamont’s budget director, Melissa McCaw, have been working to broker a deal between the owners and the union. The state is not a direct party to the negotiations but it licenses skilled nursing facilities, most of which receive hundreds of millions of dollars in funding primarily through the federal Medicaid program.

“What we’ve put on the table is extremely realistic and now we’ll leave that question back to the union leadership,” Mounds said. “Remember, there are two parties at the table. It’s workers represented by the unions and management as well. So everyone’s got to give a little, I guess.”

That offer includes money to boost wages and stabilize struggling privately owned facilities in the state. The initiative, which requires approval from the General Assembly, would be partially covered by federal coronavirus relief funds.

The offer includes a temporary 10% increase in Medicaid funding, from July 1 through March 31, 2022, for nursing homes that meet certain benchmarks.

The administration also pledged to increase its funding to the industry by $47.3 million in the 2022 fiscal year and $102.2 million in the following year, with all of the funds earmarked for wage increases in each of the next two years. And it is proposing hazard pay and increased training for employees as well.

Baril dismissed Lamont’s proposal, saying the proposed wage hikes are not even enough to boost the salaries of dietary workers and housekeepers above the state’s minimum wage, which is set to rise to $15 an hour on June 1, 2023.

“The governor’s proposal would 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,” Baril said. “Workers have suffered untold trauma in the last year, with thousands of resident deaths and nearly two dozen worker fatalities in our union.”

Mounds said he is hopeful an agreement can be reached by Friday’s strike deadline. “The state has never given this much,’’ he said. “Now it’s time for the two parties to look each other in the eye and see what they’re putting on the table.”

McCaw put it more bluntly: “The governor and his team are imploring management and labor to get back to the table.”


© 2021 Hartford Courant

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