The looming possibility of strikes at 52 or more nursing homes, roughly a third of the facilities in Connecticut, could exacerbate the financial instability of a sector still struggling to recover from the coronavirus pandemic, a top representative of the state's nursing home industry warned Wednesday.
Matt Barrett, president and CEO the Connecticut Association of Health Care Facilities/Connecticut Center for Assisted Living, said his members are also very concerned about their ability to find replacement workers to staff their buildings amid a labor shortage if agreements can't be reached on expiring labor contracts and there are walkouts.
“We would have in Connecticut a very different type of public health emergency on our hands if we were to have a large scale labor action,” Barrett said during a meeting of the state's Nursing Home Financial Advisory Committee.
The New England Healthcare Employees Union, District 1199, held “information pickets” on Wednesday at six nursing homes in Colchester, Windsor, Hamden, Hartford, Meriden and Trumbull that are owned by Genesis Healthcare, whose contract with the union expired on March 15.
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The union says its members are demanding a new contract that follows the guidelines of a proposed Long-Term Care Workers Bill of Right, which includes a wage of at least $20 an hour; personal protective equipment for anyone who needs it; quality affordable health insurance, paid sick leave and child care; and increased state support for Medicaid reimbursement to facilities.
“If a new contract agreement is not reached and if the state does not provide the assistance necessary to fund a new agreement, the union will call for a strike vote in the next couple of weeks," the union said in a statement.
The possibility of labor strikes come as the nursing home industry, which was hit hard by COVID-19, continues to struggle financially. Despite having one of the highest nursing home vaccination rates in the U.S. and a roughly 90% decline in infections, Barrett said occupancy rates in Connecticut are currently at 73.4%. That's compared to 87% in January 2020. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services recommends 95% as an optimal occupancy rate for nursing homes.
“Many nursing homes are forecasting cash shortages on the immediate horizon,” Barrett said.
Barbara Cass, chief of the Healthcare Quality and Safety Branch of the state Department of Public Health, said her agency has been in contact with many nursing home providers and begun planning for the possibility of strikes at as many as 56 facilities.
If strikes do happen, she said the state will send someone to visit every facility at least once a day. She said there will be at least two visits daily during the early days of a strike, depending on any concerns that have been identified.