West River Health Care nursing assistants, kitchen workers and others headed back to work Sunday after being on the picket line since July.

Senator Richard Blumenthal joined the workers as they gathered before the start of the second shift. He praised them for standing their ground and setting an example for the rest of the country.

“You sent a message to all of the working class that you can fight and win,” Blumenthal told them. “You had the law and patience on your side.”

HealthBridge, the company that manages the West River Health Care facility and four others in the state, was ordered by a judge to return the workers to their jobs under their previous contract.

The company fought the order, but lost, and then announced workers would be going back to their jobs March 3.

“We made it, we made it,” one employee said as she stood outside the nursing home Sunday, waiting to go in and start her shift.

It’s been a long road for the health care workers. They were locked out of their jobs more than a year ago when the company and the union that represents them could not come to an agreement on a new contract.

HealthBridge, arguing that health care centers like those they manage are closing because of high pension and other employee costs, let the workers back in after several months, promising to continue negotiations.

But negotiations did not produce an agreement, with both sides saying the other was hindering the process. In July HealthBridge simply imposed its new contract, and the employees grabbed their picket signs and hit the sidewalk.

Now, as HealthBridge and the union plan to continue negotiations, HealthBridge is waiting for word on a recent Chapter 11 filing.

The company announced last week that the five nursing homes, not HealthBridge itself, had filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy protection and were requesting court approval to modify the pre-existing contracts for unionized employees.

The court is expected to issue its ruling on Monday, a HealthBridge spokesman said.

“If granted, the motion will allow the centers to temporarily implement virtually the same terms and conditions of employment for union-represented employees that have applied to non-union employees since October 31, 2011,” said Lisa Crutchfield, senior vice president of labor relations for HealthBridge.

On Sunday, Blumenthal acknowledged that the fight isn’t over yet, and he said he plans to stand with the healthcare employees until it’s over.

“Almost all the people in Connecticut are with you on this one,” he said.

Tessa Marquis, a local businesswoman, was at the health care center Sunday to show her support.

“I was impressed with their stamina,” Marquis said of the striking workers. “These are people who work here, and a lot of them live in Milford, and I heard they weren’t getting a square deal.”

Marquis said she was impressed that the union members stayed on the picket line through some very cold months, and she was impressed that whenever she talked to them, they expressed more concern for their patients than for their own dwindling bank accounts.

Wendy Russell said she would be heading back to work on light duty Monday morning, and she was a little nervous. She said going back to work after being on strike is sort of like going into hostile territory.

“You don’t know how they’re going to treat you,” Russell said.

Ryan Gates, a dietary aide, went back to work Sunday afternoon. His shift started at 4:30 p.m. He looked excited to be going back to the job, and said he expected he’d be spending some time putting things back in order since replacement workers had been filling in for him and his co-workers during the strike.

“I was getting bored sitting around a fire out here,” Gates said. “I’d rather be working.”

Read more in this week’s Milford Mirror