Striking workers hope to return to work Monday

What was planned as a vigil at West River Health Care Center Thursday evening turned into more of a celebration.

Striking workers at West River Health Care Center in Milford had planned a vigil for Thursday to note the one-year anniversary since they were locked out of their nursing home jobs. But following a federal judge’s ruling Tuesday, the event took on more of a celebratory flavor and included signs that said, “We win.”

District 1199 spokesman Deborah Chernoff did not confirm news from some striking workers that the strike is over due to the judge’s decision, but she said it “may be over.”

Federal Judge Robert N. Chatigny on Tuesday signed a ruling granting an injunction filed by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to halt action by the nursing home company owner, HealthBridge

The ruling orders the New Jersey-based nursing home corporation to reinstate all striking workers to their former positions by Dec. 17, “displacing, if necessary, any other employees hired, transferred or reassigned to replace them,” Chernoff said.

The ruling also orders HealthBridge to reinstate the previous wages, benefits and other terms of employment that were in place under the prior contract.

West River Health Care nursing assistants, kitchen workers and others have been on the picket line for some time. A year ago, the company locked them out of their jobs because the union and the company could not agree on a new contract. After several months, HealthBridge unlocked the doors and said the two sides would resume negotiations. Several months later, with no agreement in sight, the company imposed its new contract and the staff went out on strike.

In rejecting HealthBridge’s arguments against the injunction, the judge found that “[HealthBridge] failed and refused to bargain with the union in good faith ... and further finds that the requested injunctive relief is just and proper because there is a pressing need to restore the status quo as it existed prior...” to the changes imposed by HealthBridge, according to the union.

“This ruling is a decisive victory for workers and a sign that HealthBridge cannot get away with its unfair and illegal treatment of its employees,” said David Pickus, president of the New England Health Care Employees Union, District 1199, SEIU. “The question remains not whether HealthBridge is violating the law, but how many more times does HealthBridge have to be found guilty of illegal activity until the company decides to work with its employees to settle a fair contract? Until they do, the health and well-being of workers and their patients hangs in the balance.”

Chernoff said HealthBridge representatives asked the judge to temporarily halt the order that workers be returned to their jobs, but the judge denied the request. The company is filing an appeal, and a ruling could still come down before Dec. 17 that stalls the return-to-work order, Chernoff said.

A HealthBridge spokeswoman said the company filed a notice of appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

“We are acting in the best interests of our residents,” said HealthBridge Spokeswoman Lisa Crutchfield. “Their well-being is paramount to us.”

She said the company believes the decision to grant injunctive relief unnecessarily short circuits the established venue — the ongoing National Labor Relations Board trial — in which the issue should be resolved.

“More importantly, implementation of an injunction returning the striking SEIU members to the workplace would expose residents to the very people who sought to do them harm during the July 3 walkout,” she said. “The acts of criminality committed against our residents by some of those going out on strike on July placed our residents in serious jeopardy, and we find it unfathomable that these individuals would be returned to care for our residents before those responsible are identified and prosecuted.”

When the union walked out July 3 in a strike action, in three of the five affected Connecticut HealthBridge Management Health Care Centers, multiple criminal acts of sabotage were committed against center residents, Crutchfield said.

“Residents' wristbands were removed and discarded. Names on patient doors and wheelchairs were changed. Stickers indicating how residents could safely be fed were removed. The names of residents in Alzheimer’s and memory care units were switched,” Crutchfield added.

Milford employees were not accused of those actions, however.

Noreen Gates, who works at West River Health Care Center, said she and her fellow employees “are ecstatic” about the judge’s ruling.