Still walking the line: Workers continue strike at Westport nursing home

Picketing continued for a third day on Thursday at the Westport Health Care Center, one of five nursing homes in the state where union workers have gone on strike in a long-running dispute with management.

The workers at the nursing home on Post Road West are among about 700 represented by New England Health Care Employees Union, District 1199, who began picketing early Tuesday after management of HealthBridge, the nursing homes' owner, declined to return to the bargaining table. Instead, management instead instituted the changes it proposed in a "last, best and final" contract offer made last month, a union spokeswoman said.

Deborah Chernoff, a union spokeswoman, said the employees are striking because they claim HealthBridge "unilaterally imposed new wages, benefits and working conditions," and ended negotiations.

"The illegally imposed changes gut virtually every economic benefit and right HealthBridge workers had, cutting workers' weekly hours, making health insurance unaffordable with annual premiums soaring to more than $8,000 per year for many employees, and ending any retirement security the workers could hope to have after a lifetime of challenging and often backbreaking work,'' Chernoff said in a statement.

The workers plan to picket from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. indefinitely, she said.

HealthBridge officials said they were disappointed but not surprised by the walkout.

"Our priority, as always, is to provide excellent care for our residents, and we are fully prepared to care for them should the union demand that its members leave our residents' bedsides. We hope that the union reconsiders its threat, because we are concerned about the impact the union's action will have on our employees, who may find themselves out of work during difficult economic times,'' HealthBridge said in a statement after the strike vote last week.

The Westport picketers, on the first day of the wlakout, marched up and down Burr Road and Post Road West in front of the local nursing home. Some of the strikers beat drums and blew whistles, while other yelled rally slogans.

The picket line has been orderly and there had been no skirmishes reported so far between the striking employees and security personnel stationed in front of the nursing home.

"We're not making enough," said Eddy Goutier, a dietary aide who has worked 10 years at the Westport nursing home. "They just want to treat us like we're not human beings. I don't think this is right. We give you a contract that we've had for so many years. Why are you not obeying the contract?"

Other Westport Health Care Center employees described the terms offered by HealthBridge as untenable.

"I used to be independent, paying my own insurance," said Tina McCoy, a certified nursing assistant who has worked seven years at the nursing home. "Now they're forcing me to go on state services because they're forcing me to pay all these high insurance costs. The way this economy is, nobody can afford what they're offering us."

Westport Health Care Center employees on the picket line Tuesday indicated they are prepared for a protracted strike.

"Three months, four months, six months -- we'll still be here that long if we have to," said Frantz Petion, a dietary aide who has worked 14 years at the Westport Health Care Center.

In the new contract, implemented after 17 months of negotiating with the union, HealthBridge will give workers raises totaling 9 percent in the first year and 17 percent over six years for most union employees. The company will no longer contribute to the union pension fund and eligible employees will participate in a new 401(k) plan. Bargaining unit employees will also begin paying a portion of their medical, prescription drug, dental and other insurance costs, according to the new contract.

Chernoff said that while the workers will get a raise, the higher health insurance costs, a cut in hours and the other changes result in less money for workers. She said HealthBridge acted illegally in putting the conditions in place, leaving workers with no choice but to strike.

The other HealthBridge nursing homes hit by the strike include Long Ridge of Stamford, West River Health Care Center in Milford, the Danbury Health Care Center and Newington Health Care Center.