Health-care workers picket Westport nursing home

Photo of Paul Schott

Dozens of union health-care workers walked a picket line Friday afternoon outside the Westport Health Care Center to protest their employer's bargaining tactics and contract proposals as an impasse continued with the New Jersey-based firm that operates the local nursing home and several others in the state.

About 75 workers at Westport Health Care -- including certified nursing assistants, registered nurses and cooking and housekeeping staff -- belong to the New England Health Care Employees Union, District 1199. After their shift ended at 3 p.m. Friday, workers at the Burr Road nursing home joined the "informational" picket line with union counterparts from other area skilled-nursing centers to express dissatisfaction with the new contract terms proposed by HealthBridge Management.

"They're basically trying to take everything away from us," said Eloise Powell, a certified nursing assistant who has worked 15 years at the Westport Health Care Center. "They're trying to take away our pensions, and they have this high insurance that they want us to pay for. We're trying to negotiate with them; we're not getting anywhere." Caroline Kandjii, who works in laundry at the center, said she hopes the picketing would help change HealthBridge's bargaining position.

"We've been fighting for this contract for quite a while," she said. "If we make noise, maybe they'll hear us and pay attention to us." HealthBridge officials, however, have not reacted sympathetically to the protest.

"It's unfortunate that the union chooses to devote its time and energy to activities like picketing instead of working ¦ at the bargaining table to negotiate new contracts in good faith," said HealthBridge spokesman Ed Remillard.

Picketing also took place Friday at the Danbury Health Care Center, which is also run by HealthBridge.

The picketing represents the latest sign of worker discontent in a long-running contractual dispute between the New England Health Care Employees Union, District 1199 and HealthBridge. Union employees at the Westport Health Care Center and the five other Connecticut nursing homes run by HealthBridge have been working without a contract since March 2011.

HealthBridge has proposed annual wage increases over a six-year period ranging from 1.5 percent to 8 percent. The contract terms offered by management also call for employees to begin paying health insurance premiums. Under this offer, premiums for a family health-insurance plan for a full-time employee would total about $7,700, according to District 1199 statistics. Union employees at HealthBridge's Connecticut nursing homes currently make insurance co-payments, but do not pay health insurance premiums.

In addition, HealthBridge is seeking to move newly hired employees from a pension program to a defined-contribution 401-K plan. Current employees with pensions would keep those benefits, according to Remillard.

Acrimony has infused the union's negotiations with Healthbridge, which since Dec. 13 has locked out union employees at the West River Health Care Center in Milford. Several West River employees interviewed on the Westport picket line said that in addition to losing their salaries, HealthBridge had also stripped them of their health insurance.

"You're struggling to pay the bills and make ends meet," said Jim, a cook supervisor at West River, who declined to give his last name. "You're stressing over, `If I get sick, what am I going to do?' They just kicked us to the curb, and we're fighting for our rights to get back in there." The National Labor Relations Board last week filed a formal complaint against HealthBridge, charging the company had bargained in bad faith with District 1199, and that the Dec. 13 lockout of workers at the West River Health Care Center is illegal, according to a statement released Wednesday by the union.

So far, Westport Health Care Center workers have not been barred from the premises.

Westport Health Care is Westport's only skilled-nursing center, according to HealthBridge's website. The facility, with 120 beds, offers physical, occupational and speech therapies, as well as post-acute 24-hour nursing care, the website says. Clinical staffers provide IV antibiotic, wound care and wound-vac treatments, the website states.

Despite the contentious contract negotiations, the two-hour picket line at the corner of Burr Road and Post Road West was orderly. Employees marched around the nursing home, chanting slogans: "Here we go again, the same old crap again! Out here on this picket line, HealthBridge must have lost their mind!" During the picketing, several vehicles passing by on Post Road West honked in support, while students waved to the health-care workers from buses departing the adjacent Kings Highway Elementary at the end of the school day.

District 1199 will likely stage more picketing at HealthBridge's Connecticut nursing homes if the company continues to "flout the law," said District 11999 Vice President Bill Meyerson.

District 1199 officials have also said they do not have plans to stage strikes at the HealthBridge-run facilities.

In the meantime, Westport Health Care Center employees will continue to offer a high level of care to residents, Powell added.

"We'll still provide very good care; there won't be any changes," she said. "We'll treat our residents the way we've always treated them."

pschott@bcnnew.com; 203-255-4561, ext. 118; twitter.com/paulschott