HARTFORD, Connecticut — Connecticut's largest union representing health care workers is optimistic a new, tentative agreement to pay certified nursing assistants at 20 nursing homes $15 an hour will become standard throughout the state and nation.
The tentative agreement announced Tuesday evening would cover 2,600 workers at Connecticut nursing homes owned by iCare and Genesis. It still needs to be ratified by workers over the next couple weeks, but it ends the potential threat of a strike at these homes. The union is still negotiating on behalf of workers at seven Paradigm Healthcare facilities.
"We're hoping the momentum continues into other homes and into other professions, even home care workers and child care and people who are really struggling with these low wages," Jennifer Schneider, communications director for SEIU 1199, New England, said Wednesday.
Labor, state legislators and nursing home operators in Connecticut have agreed that nursing home workers should receive higher pay. The new state budget included an additional $26 million, partly state and federal funds, that the Department of Social Services will distribute to homes to help reimburse wage increases for eligible direct and indirect care workers. An additional $9.6 million has also been authorized for increases to certain employee benefits, according to DSS.
Matthew V. Barrett, executive vice president of the Connecticut Association of Health Care Facilities, praised the concept of using federal Medicaid dollars to finance part of the cost of boosting nursing home workers' wages as smart fiscal policy. Connecticut is eligible for a 50 percent federal reimbursement for Medicaid expenses.
Barrett pointed out how nursing home residents benefit from efforts that can reduce staff turnover, such as significant wage increases. Many of the nursing assistants currently earn $10, $11 or $12 an hour, according to the union.
"It is dramatic, especially seeing that jump from $11 to $15. That's somebody being able to buy a Christmas present for their child or not being late on their electric bill. It's a huge difference," said Schneider.
The iCare and Genesis workers' raises, if ratified, would be retroactive to July 1, she said. Other workers besides the nursing assistants also would see improvements in wages and benefits, under the tentative agreement.
Barrett said Wednesday he knows some non-union nursing home operators in Connecticut have already submitted their funding requests to DSS to help cover pay raises. While he doubts the $26 million will ultimately be enough to increase all certified nursing assistants' pay to the full $15 an hour, Barrett said that "it's a major step forward." He predicted a second round of funds might be needed.
GianCarl Casa, a spokesman for the state's Office of Policy and Management, said the distribution of the $26 million won't be known until all the labor negotiations are completed.
The effort to raise wages for the nursing assistants and other nursing home staff comes at a difficult financial time for the state, as it continues to grapple with budget deficits. Democratic and Republican legislative leaders are expected to meet Thursday with Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to discuss ways to address a projected shortfall, which legislators estimate between $350 million and $375 million. Meanwhile, new projections show declining state revenues.