HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Connecticut officials on Monday proposed an additional $280 million in funding for nursing homes in an effort to avoid strikes by nearly 4,000 health workers that are set to begin Friday if negotiations fail.
Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont's budget director, Office of Policy and Management Secretary Melissa McCaw, sent letters to labor union and industry officials outlining the proposed funding, which includes $149.5 million for 4.5% wage increases for nurses, aides and other nursing home workers in the 2022 and 2023 fiscal years.
“We’ve got an aggressive proposal on the table because there’s nothing more important than taking care of our seniors, and I hope to God the nurses are there to do it," Lamont said Monday.
McCaw sent the letters to the Service Employees International Union’s District 1199 New England, which represents about 5,000 nursing home workers in Connecticut, and the presidents of the Connecticut Association of Health Care Facilities and LeadingAge Connecticut, which represent nursing homes and other health care facilities around the state.
There was no immediate response from the union or the two industry groups.
The Lamont administration’s proposed funding package also includes a temporary 10% Medicaid rate increase from July 1, 2021 to March 31, 2022, totaling $85.8 million. In addition, the state would increase funding by $19.5 million for pension enhancements for workers, $13 million for worker training and $12.5 million for hazard pay for workers.
If there are strikes, plans are in the works to send in replacement employees. Negotiations are ongoing.
More than 3,400 workers at 33 Connecticut nursing homes are ready to strike beginning Friday if demands for better wages, benefits and staffing ratios aren’t met. Union officials said Monday that 600 additional workers at another six nursing homes have voted to strike beginning May 28.
Also Monday, District 1199 New England and Yale Law School released a report saying Connecticut's nursing home workers continue to struggle with severe staffing shortages, a lack of protective equipment and low pay during the coronavirus pandemic.
They called for more Medicaid money and other funding to address what they said was a long-standing underfunding problem. They also said state officials haven't done enough to hold nursing homes accountable for violating COVID-19 protocols and guidance.
The report, titled “We Were Abandoned: How Connecticut Failed Nursing Home Workers and Residents During The COVID-19 Pandemic,” was written by Yale Law School students for District 1199 New England.
“These workers risk their lives and the lives of their loved ones back home to care for these residents in unsafe conditions and for low pay,” Yale student Aaron Bryce Lee said during a news conference held by video conference Monday. “The state must make the financial investments necessary to improve compensation, benefits and staffing levels.”
Matthew Barrett, president of the Connecticut Association of Health Care Facilities, a group of 150 skilled nursing facilities and assisted living communities, said Monday that he could not comment on the Yale report because he was still reviewing it.
Barrett has previously said his members have been “sounding an alarm bell” to the General Assembly and Lamont’s office for the “urgent need for a significant increase in funding” to address decades of underfunding in Medicaid payments and the increased costs from the pandemic.
Out of the more than 8,100 Connecticut residents who have died from COVID-19 during the pandemic, nearly 3,900 were nursing home residents. Sixteen District 1199 New England union workers also have died, said Jesse Martin, a vice president at the union.
“Nursing home workers need to be recognized for their sacrifices, need to be put in a position where they live a life outside of poverty," Martin said during Monday's news conference.
A bill now before state lawmakers would increase minimum staffing level requirements at nursing homes and mandate them to maintain a three-month supply of personal protective equipment, among other measures.
The Yale students also said the state has done little to hold nursing homes accountable for health care violations. A review of Public Health Department citations during the pandemic showed 34 COVID-19-related violations at nursing homes and an average fine of less than $2,900, significantly below the allowed maximum fine.
The review also showed there were no records of citations or fines for another 170 nursing homes where nearly 3,400 residents died, the report said.
Responding to the report's claims about oversight, Lamont said the state has been “really strict and really firm with nursing homes in terms of fines if they were not following the protocols."
The report cited low wages for many nursing home workers. Nurse's aides in Connecticut, for example, earn a median wage of $16.19, while the median wage for entry level workers is $13.71.
Tanya Beckford, a nurse's aide at Newington Rapid Recovery Rehab Center, said it will be difficult for the nursing home workers to strike because they care about the residents.
“Everything we want to do is to make sure that they’re getting the best quality of care because that’s what they deserve and that’s what they’re paying for,” she said at the news conference. “As for us, we are just so tired right now. It’s just so exhausting every single day to go in there and having to take care 15 to 17 residents.”