BUSINESS
12/30/2011 05:56 pm ET

Nursing Home Lockout Means Connecticut Workers Face New Year's Job Loss

Around 800 nursing home workers in Connecticut could be out of a job when the New Year's ball drops this weekend, as nursing home company HealthBridge Management and the workers' union have stalled in their contract negotiations.

Around 90 workers at a HealthBridge location in Milford, Conn., have been locked out since Dec. 13, when the company brought in replacement workers after failed contract talks. According to officials with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), HealthBridge has indicated that union workers could be locked out at five other facilities at the end of 2011, since the company set a Jan. 1 deadline for the negotiations.

Several of the sticking points aren't surprising. As is often the case these days, the workers are being asked to pay significantly more for their health care coverage. According to SEIU local 1199 vice president Suzanne Clark, the certified nursing assistants, dieticians and other nursing home workers would have to chip in as much as $600 a month for family coverage under the company's proposals.

But workers are just as concerned with another, seemingly minor stipulation. According to Clark, HealthBridge has asked that workers give up their paid half-hour lunch. Though it may not sound like much, if workers don't also get more hours to make up for that loss, it would effectively translate into a drop of more than six percent in pay, Clark notes. Furthermore, workers are worried the loss of a half-hour each day could push some of them below the full-time threshold, reducing their available benefits like health care and vacation time.

"It's a significant change from what our current contract is," Clark says. "Everyone is in disbelief that they would do that at this time of year."

A HealthBridge spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

The negotiations have been contentious enough to draw the attention of Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. A few days before Christmas, Malloy urged the two sides to "redouble their efforts" and reach a fair settlement before more workers are locked out. The governor appeared to pressure HealthBridge in his statement, noting that the SEIU local has "reached agreements with owners representing more than 40 nursing homes, so it seems that a fair, reasonable contract pattern has been established that works for management and labor."

The Westport News of Connecticut has reported that management offered the workers a 12 percent raise over the course of three years. But according to Clark, the workers are asking merely for a six percent raise over four years, coupled with more modest health care premiums than the ones on the table. Clark also says the company's proposals would allow it to use more temporary nursing home workers, potentially cutting into the hours of full-timers.

Michelle Baricko is a certified nursing assistant who's been locked out at HealthBridge's West River Health Care Center for more than two weeks. Supporting three sons as she goes through a divorce, Baricko says the new health care costs would amount to about half of her mortgage -- "a big deal to a lot of us," she says. The 42-year-old has been working at the same nursing home for 19 years, the last 12 in the rehabilitation department.

Now out of a job, Baricko and her co-workers have been picketing outside the nursing home, and this morning they headed to a state hearing on their application for unemployment insurance.

"We got our last check last Thursday, a few days before Christmas, and it wasn't a full check," Baricko says. "Compared to other Christmases, it was very lean."

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