Health center workers on strike

Union employees at West River Health Care Center in Milford went on strike at 6 a.m. Tuesday, protesting contacts they say are unfair and that will leave them scrambling to pay their bills.
The strike comes after more than a year of negotiations with the owner, HealthBridge, which owns other facilities in the state. Workers at the other locations are on strike too, bringing the number to more than 700 striking nurses, nursing assistants, laundry, dietary, housekeeping and other support staff at the five Connecticut nursing homes.

Tuesday morning was like déja vu for picketers in Milford, who spent several months this winter carrying signs in front of the West River facility on Orange Avenue. HealthBridge officials had locked the Milford-based union workers out of their jobs for several months for failing to agree to a new contract. The doors were unlocked in April and workers were allowed to go back to their jobs, and negotiations were expected to continue.
Negotiations did continue, but they weren’t productive, union workers said today. Michelle Baricko, a nursing assistant for 20 years, said the company’s offer barely changed from its original proposal. Under HealthBridge’s latest contract offer, Baricko said she would get a 9% raise, but she’d lose 24% of her wages in new healthcare costs and lost benefits.
“They cut sick days, and cut vacations, and took away a paid lunch,” Baricko said.
Noreen Gates, central supply coordinator who has worked at the nursing home 20 years, said the union employees don’t make a lot of money, averaging $15 an hour. So increases in healthcare costs make a big difference.
For her, proposed healthcare contributions would cost her an entire week’s paycheck.
A flyer distributed at the strike is headlined “I will take the shirt off your back,” and recounts a scenario of an average union employee who makes $15 an hour. Under the HealthBridge proposal, the worker’s salary would go to $16.35 an hour with a 9% raise, but her hours would be cut because she no longer gets paid for lunch.
That, plus new family insurance that has co-pays, means that average worker would be making $164.03 less per week, even after her raise.
According to the flyer, the worker would also lose sick and personal days, holiday and premium pay on six holidays, vacation days, and more.
“This company continues to behave illegally,” said District 1199 representative Jesse Martin.
He said company representatives made no real concessions at its latest contract negotiations, and “only showed up for five minutes, and then left.”
“What they’ve done is illegal,” Martin said. “They’ve changed almost every aspect of people’s jobs.”
Gates and others said the company’s motive is to dismantle the union.
Temporary workers have been called in to work while the employees strike, and the striking workers said that will be a noticeable difference for patients.
Cynthia Bain, a nursing assistant for 14 years, led cheers Tuesday as she and others walked their picket line.
“I’m pretty mad,” she said. “My patients, they’re like family.”
The other striking HealthBridge facilities are in Danbury, Newington, Stamford and Westport.
The health care center owners announced several weeks ago that they had made their last best offer to the union.
"The affiliated Health Care Centers' final proposals ... contain significant concessions in exchange for raises totaling 9% in the first year and 17% over six years for most bargaining unit employees," a company spokesperson said.
The officials said their offer represents realistic wage and benefit packages that will allow the affiliated health care centers to operate on a sustainable, long-term basis despite cuts in Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements and other challenges in the health care marketplace.
In a press statement issued Tuesday, company owners said the health care facilities are in full operation despite the strike.
“This is an economic strike,” said Spokeswoman Lisa Crutchfield. “The union has resorted to calling a strike because it failed to pressure the affiliated Health Care Centers to accept unrealistic contract proposals any other way. The actions of the affiliated Health Care Centers to implement their Last, Best and Final contract offers after 35 bargaining sessions and almost 17 months of negotiations failed to result in new agreements are fully legal, and the union knows it.”
She said trained, certified replacement staff, ample supplies, and enhanced security have been brought in.
“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 there by calling a strike rather than negotiate a fair and realistic contract through good faith bargaining,” Crutchfield said.