Fed up with low wages and unsafe working conditions, nursing home employees across Connecticut State, members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU1199), have voted overwhelmingly to begin an indefinite strike at 39 nursing home facilities this Friday if their demands are not met. In response, Connecticut governor, Ned Lamont, clearly concerned about the threat of an actual strike, has already signed a letter authorizing the deployment of the Connecticut State National Guard, even as negotiations for more state funding continue.
These nursing home workers, the vast majority of whom are people of color, are responsible for the health and well being of thousands of seniors in Connecticut, and yet make on average just thirteen to sixteen dollars an hour, a fraction more than the current minimum wage in Connecticut. The union is demanding an end to this exploitative pay, insisting that the non-profit corporations that manage Connecticut’s nursing home facilities increase the wage floor to at least $20 an hour. Though this would be a significant increase, it is still, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, far less than the current $29 an hour average for education and health services employees. Indeed, Nursing home workers and home health aides are, despite their essential role, among some of the lowest paid workers in the country.
But these workers are not only interested in higher wages.The nursing homes for which they work are dangerously understaffed and since last year they have watched helplessly as covid has ravaged the facilities where they work, killing hundreds of patients. Since the coronavirus pandemic began last year, more than 600,000 nursing home residents have contracted the virus and of those, more than 130,000 have died as a result. Meanwhile, SEIU 1199 reports that they have lost at least 24 members since the pandemic began as a result of unsafe working conditions, and that hundreds of members have become sick, often with serious long term complications. Nationwide, almost 1,900 Nursing home workers have died of coronavirus complications as a direct result of their work, and almost 600,000 have been infected.
There are a lot of reasons for this, but one of the driving factors is that many of these publicly funded and privately managed nursing home facilities are sorely underfunded and understaffed. Since 2008, and even before, state funding to health and education and other vital services, has fallen across the country. As a consequence both workers and patients have been unable to get the protective equipment and care that they need during the pandemic. And according to a report just released by the Workers and Immigrants Rights Clinic at Yale Law School, this situation was made all the worse by “the deficiencies of state oversight under the administration of Gov. Ned Lamont.” Under the Democratic governor’s watch, nursing homes repeatedly failed to comply with the Centers for Disease Control’s recommendations for distribution of personal protective equipment (PPE), “leaving workers with no choice but to share PPE or resort to using soiled or ineffective, makeshift PPE.” In response to this ongoing crisis, the union is asking for hundreds of millions more in state funding for nursing homes to cover increased wages as well as hiring more staff. So far the Governor has agreed to increase Medicaid rates by 10 percent, a move that would help struggling nursing home providers, but has only agreed to allocate funds equal to a 4.5 percent raise over the next two years, far less than the near 35 percent increase needed to raise these workers to $20 an hour.
Though negotiations are ongoing, and it is possible a resolution may be found before Friday’s strike deadline, the governor and the union remain far apart on any deal and a strike remains a very real possibility. The SEIU has a long record of undermining worker militancy by ending strike threats or calling limited strikes when more militant responses are needed. Therefore, the rank and file workers represented by the SEIU, must remain vigilant against any betrayals by the union bureaucracy.
The fact that the governor has called upon the national guard for support shows the essential nature of the labor that nursing home workers perform and for which they are paid so little. The willingness of these workers to risk their livelihoods and take stand for their patients, also shows the power of independent collective worker action. Before this strike threat, no one in Connecticut was talking seriously about increasing public investment in nursing homes, and now the governor has committed to at least an additional $280 million in funding over the next two years. But these workers and the patients they are fighting for deserve much more, and the only way to win it is to strike now and continue to build the necessary linkages between their struggle and the struggle of working people everywhere, including the unemployed and undocumented immigrants, against austerity, low wages, police violence, racism, and all forms of oppression and exploitation rooted in capitalism.