Unionized nursing home workers agreed to postpone strikes planned for Friday at 26 facilities across Connecticut after Gov. Ned Lamont's administration reached an agreement with union leaders and nursing homes operators that includes $267 million in state funds to help pay for historic wage increases.
The workers including nurses, nurses aides, housekeeping staff and laundry workers have threatened to walk out over what they call poverty-level wages and dangerously low staffing levels.
Lamont announced during a COVID-19 briefing with reporters Thursday afternoon that his administration had reached a “basic agreement” with the nursing home operators and the union. While the state is not a party to the talks, it plays a crucial role because it provides the bulk of nursing home revenues through Medicaid payments.
“It’s a good deal. It’s a good deal for the front-line nurses, the biggest increase they’ve gotten in many a year,” Lamont said. “I think it shows we’re keeping faith with the folks who are taking care of our parents and grandparents.”
District 1199 New England, SEIU, announced it has already reached a tentative four-year contract with iCare Health Network, owner of 11 of the homes, that will set a $20 hourly minimum wage for certified nursing assistants and a $30 hourly minimum wage for licensed practiced nurses.
But the union said it has issued new strike notices for the 26 facilities, with roughly 2,800 residents and 2,800 unionized workers, for June 7 to give more time for negotiations on final agreements with iCare, Genesis Healthcare and Autumn Lake Healthcare.
Strike notices set previously for May 28 at 13 long-term care facilities, affecting more than 1,200 workers, will remain in place. That list includes seven RegalCare homes.
The Connecticut Association of Healthcare Facilities, an association of 150 skilled nursing facilities and assisted living communities, credited the increased financial support with jumpstarting the labor talks.
“Nursing home residents, their families, caregivers and the operators all can rest easier tonight with this critically important breakthrough achievement” said Matt Barrett, the group's president, in a written statement.
The governor's announcement of an agreement was made after a slightly revised version of an earlier proposal was released on Thursday. Among other things, the revamped offer extended the labor-management agreement from two to four years and included additional money for health care and pension benefits enhancements.
The $267 million in state funds is slightly less than the $280 million the administration first proposed on Monday. Paul Mounds, Lamont's chief of staff, said the nursing home industry ultimately provided more money toward the deal, so less state money was needed.
The agreement includes a 10% rate increase in Medicaid payments to nursing homes over nine months, so long as they meet new state public health standards such as hiring full-time infection prevention experts and reducing three- and four-bed rooms to single or double rooms. Nursing homes will be required to assume responsibility for all resident and staff COVID-19 testing beginning July 1.
There's also $145 million for wage enhancements for workers, ranging from certified nurses aides to housekeeping, that equate to 4.5% in fiscal year 2022 and 4.15% in fiscal year 2023; $13 million in workforce training, such as helping CNAs become LPNs or RNs. The administration said the proposal is more than four times the average rate increase in workers' wages over the past 14 years.
Some of state's share of COVID-19 relief funds will also be used to provide child care to nursing home workers. Beginning Jan. 15, a special child care support line will be available through 2-1-1 for nursing home workers.
The threatened nursing home worker strike has highlighted the political pressures the Democratic governor is feeling from the liberal wing of his party, many of whom have accused the wealthy former businessman of not being bold enough in addressing the inequities underscored by the pandemic.
Despite Lamont offering a record boost in state funding, both the union and some Democratic state legislators initially said his first proposal fell far short of what’s needed to solve the problem of long-standing “poverty” wages. One lawmaker publicly pinned the blame on Lamont if the threatened walkouts happened.
“This work stoppage ... is going to lead to widespread, state-sanctioned neglect of our most vulnerable residents and all because of the governor’s well-known reluctance to invest equitably in Connecticut’s workforce and Connecticut’s most vulnerable care,” Rep. Anne Hughes, D-Easton, a leader in the General Assembly’s Progressive Caucus, said Wednesday during a press conference
Besides his plan for nursing home funding, Lamont has taken heat from left-leaning Democrats on other issues in recent weeks, especially his opposition to a Democratic tax plan that includes higher taxes on wealthier residents.
Lamont predicted he will ultimately coalesce with legislative Democrats around the budget and other issues.
“We’ve got a significant package when it comes to equity and social justice and investments in our most distressed communities, which is important to me and important to many of our legislators,” he said. "I think we’re pretty unified on that.”
This story corrects that strikes were planned at 11 iCare Health Network homes, not seven.