A toxic nursing home strike that gets weirder by the day

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John O'Connor
John O'Connor

The late Hunter S. Thompson famously said that when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. By his logic, the management and workers involved in a strike across five HealthBridge Management facilities in Connecticut seem to be taking professionalism to a whole new level.

Most recently, we've seen unsuccessful attempts to drag in two Supreme Court justices, a challenge to the legal standing of the National Labor Relations Board, charges of worker sabotage and some of the state's top political officials weighing in.

But first, some background: About 700 union workers at five facilities run by HealthBridge walked off the job last July. The work stoppage occurred after the firm implemented a “last, best and final” contract offer. This came after a year of fruitless contract negotiations.

The (non-ratified) contract that was put in place terminated employees' pensions, raised health insurance premiums, eliminated six paid sick days and a week's vacation for many workers and eliminated their ability to discuss employment-related grievances during work hours.

In the hours leading up to the walkout, it appears that many employees were less than model citizens. According to several reports, residents' wristbands were removed and discarded. Names were changed on patient doors and wheelchairs. Stickers indicating how residents could safely be fed were removed.

So no matter which side you decide is the bad guy here, you're making a safe bet.

The dispute has had some unusual political ripples. Gov. Dannel Malloy and Attorney General, George Jepsen have marched on the picket line.

In August, the National Labor Relations Board alleged that management had bargained in bad faith and illegally imposed workers' benefit cuts. The board added that HealthBridge should reimburse all 600 strikers for lost wages since the walkout started.

In December, a federal judge approved an injunction requested by the board ordering the company to reinstate striking workers.

But in January, the D.C. Circuit Court ruled that President Obama's three recess appointments to the NLRB exceeded his authority. HealthBridge then filed an application with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. When she refused, a similar request was extended to Justice Antonin Scalia. He referred the request to the full court for consideration. But on Feb. 6, the court declined to stay the request, without comment.

At this point, it's anyone's guess how this strike will be resolved. Although the odds sure seem to favor the employees being reinstated under the old terms.

To sum up the fallout so far: The five affected facilities have lost millions in revenue. Labor-management relations at the facilities are toxic, with no signs of improvement. Assuming workers do eventually return, they will probably be a lot less likely put anything resembling extra effort into their jobs.

These are hardly ideal conditions for ensuring optimal resident care — which by the way, is supposed to be the whole purpose of long-term care, right?

This is not just a bizarre episode in management-labor relations. It's a sad one.

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McKnight's Daily Editor's Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor on Monday and Friday; Staff Writer Tim Mullaney on Tuesday, Editor James M. Berklan on Wednesday and Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman on Thursday.

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