Danbury picketers fight 'corporate greed'

Danbury Health Care Center: Workers decry owner's stance on contract negotiations

DANBURY -- Shouts of "Help the needy. Stop the greedy" rang out Friday on Osborne Street as 40 health care workers and union sympathizers picketed Danbury Health Care Center.

The picketing employees were joined by members of Occupy Danbury, Act for Progress, Make The Light Coalition of New Fairfield and Sherman, and the United Church of Christ Health Care Ministry Team.

"We're here in solidarity against corporate greed," said Linda Yannone, a ministry team member.

Another protests took place at the Westport Health Care Center in Westport, which is also owned by New Jersey-based HealthBridge Management.

The picketing, organized by New England Health Care Employees Union District 1199, was held to draw attention to the practices HealthBridge engages in during "a year of contentious contract negotiations," the union said, with some 640 Connecticut union members who staff six of its health care centers.

"They've talked about lockouts of union staff at all of their six facilities, like the one they did in Milford," Deborah Chernoff, union communications director, said about HealthBridge.

"They're sending letters to patients' families saying that if they can't come an equitable agreement with the union, they may close and sell all six facilities. That's like taking hostages."

Union employees want to maintain their past contract terms. HealthBridge is offering 2 percent raises in the first year and 1.5 percent increases in following years, while cutting fringe benefits, eliminating pensions and lowering starting pay scales, according to a union chart.

Attempts to contact HealthBridge officials were answered with emailed press releases.

"Negotiations have been stalled due to the union's continued insistence on demands that are unrealistic and out of touch with the current economy," Ed Remillard, public relations spokesman for HealthBridge, wrote on March 7.

For one Danbury woman whose 92-year-old family member is a resident at the 180-bed Danbury Health Care Center, the "constant letters" warning of a lockout or possible sale of the facility are disturbing.

"I'm not so concerned about a lockout. We've met with management here, and they say they'll bring in very qualified people to care for her if union employees are locked out," said the woman, who declined to give her name.

"But I am concerned. If we have to move her to someplace else, at her age it would be difficult for her," she said.

On Feb. 29, the National Labor Relations Board filed a fourth formal complaint against HealthBridge, charging that the company "has a pattern of bad faith bargaining (with District 1199) and unlawfully locked out the unionized employees at one of its homes."

All complaints are still active, said Nancy Cleeland, NLRB communications director.

The Connecticut Department of Social Services denied HealthBridge's request to close Wethersfield Health Care Center. HealthBridge cited a loss in revenue, but dragged its feet on producing financial records, according to the March 5 final decision.

"The complaints against the affiliated Health Care Center is not a finding of guilt. We look forward to the opportunity to present our side of the story," Remillard wrote in a release dated Feb. 29.

stuz@newstimes.com; 860-355-7322