Conn. nursing-home workers hope to return to jobs

Striking nursing home workers in Connecticut said Wednesday they were hopeful about returning to work next week under a judge's order after five months on the picket lines. But acrimony remained as the company that owns the homes balked at rehiring the workers and vowed to take the case to a federal appeals court.

About 50 of the 600 striking workers rallied outside Newington Health Care Center, one of five homes owned by Parsippany, N.J.-based HealthBridge Management where workers are on strike. They cheered Tuesday's ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert Chatigny and continued to criticize the company for what they called its efforts to cut their benefits in order to boost profits.

"They want to be cutting everything," said picketing worker Sandra Gomero, a nurse's aide who has worked at the Newington home for 20 years. "They don't even appreciate how we've been working hard over here. It's no fair. Look at how they want to pay us back like this."

Chatigny's injunction ordered HealthBridge Management to reinstate all the striking workers by Monday, saying the company failed to bargain in good faith before unilaterally imposing a new contract in June on workers with District 1199 of the New England Health Care Employees Union, which is affiliated with the Service Employees International Union. Workers went on strike July 3.

Workers said that while the contract included pay raises, those increases were more than wiped out by charging employees for the first time for their health care insurance, reducing their working hours by 2 hours a week, eliminating paid lunches and eliminating their pension plan in favor of a 401(k) plan. Workers with family health care plans would have to pay about $8,500 a year, the union said.

The National Labor Relations Board requested the injunction in hearing a union complaint accusingHealthBridge of unfair labor practices at the five homes — Newington Health Care Center, Danbury Health Care Center, Long Ridge of Stamford, Westport Health Care Center and West River Health Care Center in Milford.

Lawyers for HealthBridge notified Chatigny on Wednesday that they planned to appeal his order to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City, and asked him to stay his ruling. Company officials and union leaders said they expected Chatigny to rule on the stay request on Friday.

A HealthBridge spokeswoman, Lisa Crutchfield, said in a statement that company officials negotiated in good faith with the union for 17 months, but says the talks were repeatedly stalled by the union. The company believed it was at an impasse, which allowed it under the law to put the new contract in place, HealthBridgeofficials said.

The company also accused the striking workers of acts of sabotage at three of the five nursing homes, including removing residents' wristbands, changing names on patient doors and removing stickers indicating how residents could safely be fed.

There were no reports of any residents being harmed by the alleged actions.

Crutchfield said reinstating the union workers "who committed these acts would dangerously expose residents to the very people who sought to do them harm during the July 3 walkout."

Union spokeswoman Deborah Chernoff condemned the acts but said the company had no proof who committed them. She said both the workers who walked off the job and replacement workers had access to residents as the strike began. She said it didn't make sense for the company to fight the order to hire back all the workers when it's not clear who or how many people committed the alleged sabotage.

The company said the incidents are being investigated by the chief state's attorney's office, which acknowledged receiving the company's complaint but declined to confirm an investigation was under way.

Some workers at Wednesday's rally said they have had a hard time making ends meet over the past five months, with no pay or health insurance. Many are getting by on unemployment benefits and food stamps.

"It's been very hard to pay our bills. We want to go back to work and take care of our residents," said Yolanda Williams, 61, a nurse's aide who has worked at Westport Health Care Center for 26 years. "They miss us very much."



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