Westport nursing home could shut down in showdown with workers

Photo of Frank Juliano
Westport Health Care Center, 1 Burr Rd. in Westport, Conn. Feb. 16th, 2012.
Westport Health Care Center, 1 Burr Rd. in Westport, Conn. Feb. 16th, 2012.Ned Gerard

The management of five area nursing homes -- including one in Westport -- has informed the union representing employees it is considering filing applications with state officials to close the facilities.

Workers at Westport Health Care Center , West River Health Care Center in Milford, the Danbury Health Care Center, Long Ridge of Stamford and the Newington Health Care Center have been without a contract since March 2011, and a spokesman for the New Jersey-based management company said representatives of District 1199, New England Health Care Workers have not agreed to any meaningful concessions.

Employees at West River have been locked out since last Dec. 13, while about 200 patients are cared for by replacement workers.

Workers at the other four facilities continue to work under the expired contract.

"The affiliated health care centers are dealing with the effects of a massive 11.1 percent cut in Medicare reimbursement that took effect on October 1, and a potential additional 5 percent cut from the end of group therapy, as are all skilled nursing centers in Connecticut," company spokesman Ed Remilard said in a news release.

Michelle Baricko, on the Milford picket line Thursday, said that the threat to close West River and the other nursing homes may be a ploy, "but I didn't think they'd lock us out but they did that. This wouldn't just put the workers on the street, but remove people from their homes.

"The $700 a month for health insurance is like two paychecks," she said. "Most of us are single mothers and our biggest fear is not being able to put food on the table for our kids."

Union President David Pickus said in a letter to HealthBridge attorney Jonathan Kaplan on Thursday that the company's claim to be negotiating in good faith is untrue, since it has barely budged from its original "take it or leave it" offer.

The union is adamantly opposed to the closing of any HealthBridge facility.

Union spokeswoman Deborah Chernoff said Thursday morning the company's letter "is nothing short of extortion. They are holding the care of 1,200 people hostage. They might as well have cut letters out of a newspaper: `Give me what we want or else.' "

Talks were scheduled for Feb. 23 and Feb. 29 before the company suggested that it might apply to close the five facilities. Those talks will likely go forward, Chernoff said. "But we are confused whether we're going to be negotiating over closure or for a new contract."

Remillard said in an email to Hearst Connecticut Media Group that no decision has been made to close any of the facilities.

"We will bargain with the union in good faith over the decision to close," he said. "... The union has so far refused to agree to concessions that reflect today's economic realities, which include the cuts in Medicare reimbursement. It remains possible that the union can save the employees' jobs and keep the affiliated Health Care Centers open by agreeing to our proposed concessions."

HealthBridge has offered employees a 3 percent raise while reducing the workday to 7.5 hours from 8. Employees would no longer have a paid lunch period. While employees with a pension plan could retain it, the company would offer a new 401(k) plan and stop pension contributions, spokeswoman Lisa Crutchfield said.

Chernoff said the union has settled contracts with 40 other nursing homes in the past year, and most of those have employee pension plans and eight paid hours a day.

The process of closing a nursing facility can be lengthy and complex. The company must file a certificate of need with the state Department of Social Services, a public hearing must be held and the company would have to prove that there are enough beds in the state to accept their patients, officials said.

Remillard said the five nursing homes want to negotiate their decisions to close.

"It remains possible that the union can save the employees' jobs and keep the affiliated health care centers open by agreeing to the employers' proposed concessions," he said. "The history of how the union has handled these negotiations, however, is not encouraging.''