Connecticut Calls in National Guard as Nursing Home Workers Plan Strike

Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont has called on the state National Guard to stand ready to monitor the standard of care if nursing home workers proceed to strike as planned on Friday. The workers are demanding better pay and benefits and more robust staffing and have reached a stalemate in negotiations.

More than 3,400 of the District 1199 New England Service Employees International Union (SEIU) are planning to strike after the governor, a Democrat, warned the workers that the state and nursing home owners’ offer is the “best and final offer” that the state was going to put forth. The union rejected that offer on Tuesday night, building momentum for the strike. Another 600 workers in the union are planning to strike later this month.

The National Guard would supervise and support the state’s public health department while the workers are striking, easing management concerns. The state has a stake in the workers’ negotiations because many of the facilities are run primarily with funds from the state in exchange for serving patients on Medicaid.

“Connecticut’s long-term care system relies on poverty wages. By going on strike we are telling nursing home operators and the State of Connecticut that we are not willing to carry the yoke of poverty any longer,” said Rob Baril, president of District 1199, in a statement.

“It’s time for nursing home bosses and state leaders to pay these workers what they deserve,” Baril continued. “The majority women workforce that provides care in these nursing homes and the people who depend on their services are not expecting any less.”

Most of the nursing home workers make between $13 to $15 an hour. The union is demanding a pay increase of about 33 percent to $20 an hour at a minimum. In return, the governor’s “best” offer is a pay raise of 4.5 percent.

For hundreds of housekeeping, dietary and laundry support workers, the proposed raise would not even keep up with the state’s minimum wage laws,” according to a union statement. The minimum wage in Connecticut is set to be $13 an hour later this year and will hit $15 an hour in 2023. A 4.5 percent raise for someone making $13 an hour, by contrast, is a raise of 59 cents an hour.

It’s not just better pay that the workers are asking for. They say that conditions at work have become unbearable as they struggle with burnout, a lack of resources and improper protections from COVID-19.

Yale Law School put out a report on Monday compiled on behalf of the union that reveals dire conditions at the state’s nursing homes, largely wrought by the pandemic. Like much of the rest of the country, the virus spread quickly through the state’s nursing homes, and the care assistants describe working to protect their patients, while running the risk of catching the virus themselves.

Nearly 3,900 of the over 8,100 people in Connecticut who have died from COVID were nursing home residents. The union says that 16 of its members have died from COVID.

The workers experienced a lack of personal protective equipment and tests, which aggravated concerns for the staff and their patients. Meanwhile, one worker told Yale that talking to nursing home administrators at the time was like “talking to a brick” while hiding the worst of the conditions there when the government came to inspect the facilities.

The pandemic also amplified the issue of being short-staffed at the nursing homes. Exhausted and overworked staff reported having to care for as many as 15 patients at one time — an untenable task even without the added hazards around COVID.

The union has demanded better staff-to-patient ratios. Workers say their demands will help them to provide better care for their patients.

“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,” said Jesse Martin, a union vice president, at a news conference.