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Connecticut officials hope to stave off possible nursing home strike across the state

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HARTFORD, Connecticut — Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's administration has been working in recent weeks to come up with a new state funding arrangement that could help fend off possible strikes at unionized nursing homes across the state.

Office of Policy and Management Secretary said state officials have been meeting privately with union officials to find a way of fairly distributing $26 million in additional state and federal funds, in each of the next two years, to both union- and non-union homes.

"I'm confident we'll come out with a methodology for providing that money to nursing homes that I hope will allow for (the union) to come to satisfactory terms with nursing home operators in their ongoing collective bargaining," Barnes said in an interview Tuesday.

"We frankly would rather spend more money on wages than spend more money on strikes," he added.

Sixty unionized nursing facilities, whose 7,648 workers are represented by SEIU Healthcare 1199 New England, have labor contracts that are up for negotiations this year.

Earlier this year, 3,790 of those workers at 28 homes owned by ICare, Genesis and Paradigm issued notices to strike, amid calls for better wages and benefits. However, the notices were rescinded in April at the governor's request, who asked for a cooling off period until a final two-year state budget agreement could be reached.

A state budget bill crafted by the General Assembly's majority Democrats later set aside an extra $9 million in funds to unionized homes, in consideration of the expiring labor contracts, and $4 million to non-union facilities, although they make up 70 percent of the approximate 230 nursing home facilities across Connecticut. That's in addition to the approximate $1.2 billion Connecticut spends each year on long-term care.

The legislature's minority Republicans criticized the proposal, accusing the Democrats of favoring the union homes for political reasons. Meanwhile, the Connecticut Association of Health Care Facilities, a trade association that represents the interests of both union- and non-union nursing homes, warned the proposal would violate federal law and risk federal matching funds.

Matthew V. Barrett, the association's executive vice president, in late June called the proposal "blatantly unfair and discriminatory to non-union workers who do the exact same work as the union workers with the same Connecticut taxpayer money." He said the additional money would amount to a 10 cent hourly raise for non-union workers and an 80-cent raise for union workers.

Barnes said the administration has since confirmed with the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services that it must "treat everybody the same." It is now working to come up with a formula that is equally fair to both union- and non-union homes and also complies with a state statute that allows Connecticut to help homes reimburse wages reached through collective bargaining, he said.

While talks continue, Barnes said, he expects the state will ultimately allow homes to report cost increases due to wage increases paid out over the year and receive an adjustment in state funding. He said different amounts may ultimately be given to those homes that provide larger raises.

Jennifer Smith, political director for 1199 New England, said it's not clear yet whether this funding formula would be enough to stave off a new round of strike notices.

"We're having these conversations with the administration because everyone wants to see the same end results: improve the wages and avoid situations like strikes," she said.

Barrett, whose organization has not been involved with the talks, said he hopes the final plan will be beneficial to all nursing homes.

"We're hoping what's been expressed by the administration — that the money will be distributed fairly and equitably without regard to union status — continues to be the direction they're going in," he said.

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