By Wayne Jebian
With health care as one of the largest areas of employment for Latinos, a four month old strike by 700 workers at nursing home facilities operated by HealthBridge Management in Newington, Danbury and other locations around the state is impacting a large number of Latinos.
Juan Farfan, a nurse’s aide for 20 years at the Danbury Health Care Center says, “”We’ve got to settle soon; snow will be coming, my wife and I worked there together. Now we have no insurance. Imagine being outside in the winter; we could get sick. It’s going to be hard.”
The winter may come and go before anything is settled. Complaints filed by the National Labor Relations Board on behalf of the striking workers and their union, New England Health Care Employees Union, District 1199, are winding their way through federal court. The first ruling is not expected until at least the end of this month, and even a favorable ruling may not translate into results for the workers.
“It’s not the people here we have a problem with – the managers or the director – they’re good people. We’re like family,” said Farfan, emphasizing that the workers’ dispute was not with their on-site supervisors. “They’re not the problem; it’s the big guy, the owner,” he said.
The roots of this strike are entangled in the system of healthcare compensation in which nursing homes and their employees are ensnared. Last year, the federal government cut Medicare payments to nursing homes by 11 percent. Faced with this cut in revenue, nursing homes around the country looked to cut costs, and workers’ health coverage was a starting point with a move to shift these costs to the employees, who themselves often can’t afford to pay it.
In a statement to CTLatinoNews.com, Lisa Crutchfield, senior vice president of labor relations for HealthBridge, said, “We had been negotiating in good faith with the union when it chose to abandon negotiations, jobs and our residents. For 17 months, the union made untenable demands while refusing to engage.
“The Health Care Centers’ contract proposals were rooted in simple economic reality. … The economic reality is that our businesses will no longer bend to the lavish demands of a union that still lives in a world of 8.5 percent employee pension contributions and free health insurance. That world is vastly different from the one in which the rest of the country lives.”
But workers like Elodia Rivera, who has worked at the Newington location for 23 years, says, “Benefits would cost us almost half of what we were getting paid, and there are medications I need to take. I am the only one working in my house and I have kids in college.”
The benefits, the workers say, are more than just a perk; they were more of a loyalty incentive, a reason to hold on to these jobs over the years instead of searching for bigger paychecks elsewhere. Pensions were also a major incentive as well and the 401K plan that HealthBridge is seeking as a substitute, workers say, would leave them with a drastically different retirement picture.
“There are people senior to myself, with two or three years to go to retirement, who have been working their whole lives for their pensions,” said Sandra Omero, who works in Newington. “What are they going to do with a 401K?”
“We are willing to pay something, but what they are asking is impossible,” said Omero, who was bringing home $550 per week before the strike. “It’s just too much.”
According to David Pickus, president of New England Health Care Employees Union, District 1199, over the past two years, more than 50 nursing homes across the state have settled contracts with their employees without a fight. He says, HealthBridge management lays the blame for the current impasse entirely at the feet of the union.
For the workers, the strike seems endless. “The situation now is just terrible, miserable. Every day, we hope to have good news. I didn’t expect for it to go on this long.”said Farfan.
In Danbury, Farfan and others keep busy during the strike by doing volunteer work for the community when they are not on the picket line. “Right now, we want to show the community that we are not bad people,” he said. “We have been going to a church, Our Lady of Guadalupe, and fixing the benches, that sort of thing. It’s a poor church without a lot of money to fix things, and I’m very handy. Father Hector has been grateful for what we have been doing.”
The striking workers interviewed for this article are all ineligible for Husky Health, Connecticut’s Medicaid plan; however, with the Affordable Health Care Act coming in 2014, the coverage options for these workers might improve then. HealthBridge Management chose to undergo the trouble and expense of a strike rather than agreeing to postpone renegotiation of contract terms until ObamaCare kicks in. This is a compromise that the union would be willing to consider, according to Deborah Chernoff, communications director for New England Health Care Employees Union, District 1199.