All they had were solidarity and a litany of grievances, but with a booming megaphone in tow, the striking nursing home workers stood their ground outside the Jewish Home for the Aged, assailing passing cars with their chant, “No contracts, no work, no work.”
Across Connecticut Tuesday, more than 4,000 nursing home employees, all members of New England Health Care Employees Union, District 1199, staged a walkout blasting low wages and understaffing in nursing homes.
“You’re not able to give the care you want to give. It’s unrealistic,” said Candace Walcott, a licensed practical nurse who works at the Jewish Home for the Aged at 169 Davenport Ave.
The union wants Gov. John G. Rowland to increase the now 2.5 percent slice of the budget allocated for Medicaid, which covers from 75 to 100 percent of the cost for almost all privately-run nursing homes in Connecticut. The workers said money should go toward pay raises and hiring more staff, but emphasized that this is only a means to achieving their end — better quality care for the elderly.
“The main issue is not pay raises. Those are negotiable,” Deborah Chernoff, spokeswoman for 1199. “You can always negotiate numbers, but what we can’t compromise is quality care.”
Louis Guida, a union organizer, said from the protest front that with as many as 30 patients per nurse at times, nursing home residents do not receive adequate attention.
The National Citizens Coalition for Nursing Home Reform has conducted research that recommends the minimum requirement for staff to patient ratios be one to five during the day shift, one to 10 in the afternoon shift and one to 15 in the night shift.
But state officials doubted the union’s intentions.
Dean Pagani, the governor’s spokesman, said the strikers were just angling for more money.
“The union is using the nursing home patients as pawns — for as much money as they can get out of the legislature,” Pagani said.
Pagani added that two years ago when the governor raised Medicaid reimbursements by $200 million, the unions had a chance to use that money to raise staffing but instead chose to concentrate that money on wage raises.
Guida denied this. He said most of the money was used for non-union workers and that at the Jewish Home for the Aged, the extra funds were used to raise staff numbers. However, he added that management continued to layoff workers without replacing them to save money — leaving the nursing home in the same plight as before.
Public health codes already have imposed minimum staffing requirements, but the union sees these as inadequate. Protesters claimed that nursing homes do not bother observing regulations already in place and that the high patient to staff ratio means nurses lack familiarity with those they treat.
“You don’t know if [patients] have teeth in their mouths or if they can talk,” said licensed practical nurse Carolyn LeGrant of the Jewish Home for the Aged.
Walcott added that nurses are often swamped by paper work that prevents them from spending more time with patients.
“It’s like being a glorified medical secretary,” Walcott said.