Health care workers across the state who were hired during the pandemic must be terminated if they aren’t fingerprinted for state-mandated background checks before July 20, the Connecticut Department of Public Health is warning in urgent memos being sent to nursing homes, home health agencies, chronic disease hospitals and other health care entities.
An estimated 7,500 people were hired between March 23, 2020 and May 19, 2021 when Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont issued an executive order suspending the required fingerprint checks to help stop the spread of COVID-19.
More than 3,000 of the 7,500 workers have been fingerprinted so far, Christopher Boyle, a spokesperson for the department said. The department was not able to say how many of the estimated remaining 4,500 are still employed in long-term care and how many employees still need to be fingerprinted.
District 1199 New England, SEIU, the union that represents nursing home workers, on Friday called on state officials to “provide leniency” to the employees and postpone the deadline until Sept. 20.
“When these workers were hired, they passed a background check and other verification processes, but were specifically told not to submit their fingerprints due to the pandemic,” wrote union President Rob Baril in a letter sent to the acting commissioner and the chief of the Healthcare Quality and Safety Branch at the health department.
He warned that terminating the employees would negatively impact the care in nursing homes, which have been facing staffing shortages, and called the requirement “disrespectful” to the sacrifices workers have made in the past year.
July 20 marks the date Lamont’s public health and civil preparedness emergencies are currently scheduled to expire. While they’ve been extended in the past, there are no plans to do so this time, Boyle said.
“Workers who have not been fingerprinted by July 20, 2021 will not be eligible for continued employment in direct-care positions unless they are fingerprinted before the executive order expires,” Boyle said in a statement. Those fingerprinted on or before July 20, but are still awaiting their results, can be hired under “provisional status.”
“The statutory requirement for a background check is not new and is an important measure to ensure the health and safety of nursing home residents,” said Boyle, who urged employers and workers to make appointments now.
Doris Tavares, a nursing assistant at two Genesis Healthcare nursing homes in Danbury and a union delegate, said more than 30 workers between the two facilities have yet to get fingerprinted. She said they can’t afford to lose those employees, given the staffing constraints at both sites.
“We’re already lacking staffing. It’s crazy that they’re not giving them enough time because we really need staff,” she said.
The Connecticut State Police is responsible for conducting fingerprint-based criminal history checks for direct care workers at long-term care facilities. The closest state police barracks is in Southbury, about 20 miles away, and some workers don’t have cars and need rides, Tavares said.
Nursing home operators are also concerned about the upcoming deadline and whether the State Police has the capacity to address the backlog.
“We support the plan and are working collaboratively with DPH, but (with) the ambitious schedule, as we’re nearing the deadline, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the State Police barracks can’t deliver the capacity to address the backlog,” said Matthew Barrett, president and CEO of the Connecticut Association of Health Care Facilities and the Connecticut Center for Assisted Living.
Home health agencies are reporting similar challenges. On Thursday, Coco Sellman, founder and CEO of Allume Home Care in Watertown, which specializes in helping medically fragile children and adults, said there are currently dozens of children stuck waiting in hospitals because they require continuous skilled nursing to leave and there aren’t enough clinicians to provide the needed home care services.
Boyle said the Health Department is monitoring available appointments for fingerprinting daily and has held webinars to answer questions.
“While some barracks are booked, other barracks have plenty of open appointments,” Boyle said. “We urge people to take advantage of available appointments.”
The Health Department and the State Police implemented a special fingerprinting schedule in June for the workers hired under Lamont’s executive order and have been “messaging heavily” to long-term care employers and the affected staff about the need to complete the fingerprinting before July 20, he said.
A spokesperson for District 1199, however, said neither the union nor the workers have received any communications from the state agency.