HealthBridge says bankruptcy court gave go-ahead to modify health care workers' contracts

A day after caregivers at West River Health Care Center in Milford and four other facilities in the state headed back to work, the game may have changed again.

HealthBridge, the company that manages the health care centers, announced Monday night that the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of New Jersey granted a motion that allows the health care centers to implement temporary modifications to their collective bargaining agreements.

The five nursing homes filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last week.

The ruling lets the centers avoid “what otherwise would have been the imminent closure of the facilities,” HealthBridge said in a prepared statement.

The court order allows 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 spokeswoman Lisa Crutchfield.

The centers’ union workforces are represented by the New England Health Care Employees Union, District 1199, SEIU.

“Without approval of the 1113(e) motion, the centers would have suffered substantial monthly losses as a result of the onerous terms of the union labor agreements,” Crutchfield said. “The losses would have prevented the centers from obtaining debtor-in-possession financing and forced them to close and liquidate.”

She said contract negotiations will continue, and if the two sides can’t agree, HealthBridge will seek court approval for “permanent modifications to the centers’ terms of employment.”

At the same time, the union says it is confident the workers will prevail.

“Caregivers who returned to work this week after an eight-month strike at five Connecticut nursing homes remain confident that they will retain the wages and benefits ordered in an injunction issued by a District Court judge, despite a seemingly contradictory decision by a bankruptcy court judge in New Jersey, which was issued late on Monday afternoon,” said union spokeswoman Deborah Chernoff.

She said that in December, Federal District Court Judge Robert N. Chatigny issued an injunction, at the request of the National Labor Relations Board, ordering New Jersey-based HealthBridge Management to reinstate 600 nurses, nursing assistants and support staff to their former positions under all the terms and conditions of their expired contract, pending the final decision in an ongoing National Labor Relations Board trial against the company.