Yesterday the state Department of Labor ruled that union employees of five Connecticut nursing homes who are on strike against what they see as an illegal contract imposed by New Jersey-based HealthBridge Management, LLC, are owed unemployment. More than 600 union workers at the five facilities — Danbury Health Care Center, Long Ridge in Stamford, Newington Health Care Center, West River Health Care Center in Milford and Westport Health Care Center — have been on strike since July 3.
On Aug. 1, the labor department’s office of program policy issued a “Multi-Claimant Decision Memorandum” approving claims for benefits by the affected employees, approximately 600 nurses, nursing assistants, dietary, laundry, housekeeping and other support staff, while they are engaged in a labor dispute.
The striking workers, members of The New England Health Care Employees Union, District 1199, SEIU, are protesting the implementation of a “last, best and final” contract imposed after more than a year of fruitless contract negotiations. Throughout the negotiation process, there was been tension between HealthBridge and the union workers. In December, HealthBridge locked out union employees at West River. The lockout went on for 14 weeks.
Though HealthBridge has stated that the new guidelines provide a raise to workers, the union argues that the company is also taking away a lot from employees, including insurance contributions, pension contributions and vacation time.
According to the labor department’s decision, under Connecticut General Statutes Section 31-236(a)(3), employees engaged in a labor dispute are eligible for unemployment if “an employer makes an announcement that work will be available after the expiration of the existing contract only under terms and conditions which are less favorable to the employees than those current immediately prior to such announcement.”
Following a hearing held in Middletown on July 13, Ann Rugens, Principal Attorney for the Office of Program Policy, determined that HealthBridge’s actions constituted a lockout under Connecticut law and therefore “the claimant’s unemployment was due to the existence of a lockout. Accordingly, the employees are eligible for benefits.” Benefits will be retroactive to the first day of the strike, July 3.
Union spokeswoman Deborah Chernoff called the decision “very good news” for the workers, and said it, along with a recent decision by the National Labor Relations Board, weakens HealthBridge’s claims that it acted correctly in imposing the new contract.
On July 20, an administrative law judge ruled that HealthBridge had violated federal labor law. That finding was in response to a charge made last year that HealthBridge prevented workers at six of its nursing homes — West River, Long Ridge, Danbury, Newington, Westport and Wethersfield Health Care Center — from posting fliers on union bulletin boards at the facilities advertising an earlier complaint that had been filed against HealthBridge. Workers were also told that they couldn’t wear stickers publicizing the complaint.
NLRB has several other complaints pending against HealthBridge, which will be prosecuted by attorneys for the NLRB before an Administrative Law Judge beginning Sept. 10 in Hartford.
Meanwhile, HealthBridge representatives have called for an investigation into alleged acts of sabotage at Danbury, Newington and Long Ridge. These include allegedly removing wrist bands from over 30 residents, changing names on patient doors and wheelchairs, switching the names of residents in the memory care unit, removing stickers indicating how residents can be fed safely, and tampering with medication records.