MILFORD, Conn. — On day 66 of a nursing home strike in Connecticut, Jennifer Musante had plenty to worry about as she joined the picket line.
The single mother of two teenagers is struggling to pay her bills, delaying a car payment and credit cards to pay for school supplies and clothes.
"Some nights you don't sleep," Musante said Wednesday as cars roared by on Interstate 95 on a muggy wet morning. "You worry about how you're going to survive."
Musante, a 39-year-old certified nurse's aide, is among about 600 workers on strike since early July at nursing homes in Milford, Westport, Stamford, Danbury and Newington. The workers went on strike to protest what they say are labor concessions imposed by the company that owns the nursing homes, Parsippany, N.J.-based HealthBridge/Care One.
The company, which has hired replacement workers, says the union has made unrealistic demands in what has emerged as an unusually prolonged strike in a labor-friendly state.
A hearing before an administrative law judge was set for Monday on a complaint issued by the National Labor Relations Board at the regional level in July alleging the company refused to bargain in good faith with the union, making changes to wages, hours and other conditions. The NLRB's acting general counsel is seeking an order that requires HealthBridge to reimburse employees lost wages and benefits.
The union says those changes include a steep jump in health insurance payments and loss of sick days, holidays, vacation time and a pension in favor of a 401(k) plan.
HealthBridge has said it had been negotiating in good faith with the union "when it chose to abandon negotiations, jobs and our residents." HealthBridge said it has offered a raise that will give most employees an increase of 17 percent over six years despite cuts in Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements.
"HealthBridge Management looks forward to having its day in court," HealthBridge spokeswoman Lisa Crutchfield said. "We especially look forward to clearing our name as we respond to the many misleading, irresponsible charges made against us by the union."
The union says it settle contracts with almost 50 other nursing homes in Connecticut on terms similar to what it discussed with HealthBridge.
The workers have won some high-profile support. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a Democrat, joined the picket line in July at Newington Health Care Center and accused the company of taking "unfair actions" against employees.
Norman Solomon, professor of management at Fairfield University, said he's surprised the strike lasted as long as it has, noting the governor's intervention and the NLRB's findings.
"In New England and Connecticut, it's rare to have a strike like this go on for so long and be so acrimonious," Solomon said.
HealthBridge may be trying to send a message to workers at its other facilities that it's willing to take a strong stand against the union, while the union doesn't want to give in when they're convinced they're right and have an NLRB ruling in their favor and strong political support, Solomon said.
Inspections by the state Department of Public Health after the strike began found violations of regulations such as replacement workers unable to articulate appropriate steps to take in a fire. Other violations related to infection control practices, failure to administer pain medication in a timely fashion to a resident at the Stamford home; water for patients too hot and some residents not having identification bracelets in Newington; failing to keep a clean environment and ensure patients were positioned appropriately in Danbury; and in Milford, failing to properly treat pressure ulcers for two residents.
The homes said the violations were addressed by educating replacement workers and other measures. Some corrective plans have been approved while others are under review, said William Gerrish, spokesman for the state health department.
The violations are not out of the ordinary with what inspectors would expect to find during any routine nursing home inspection, Gerrish said.
Some strikers say they have no health insurance since they went on strike. Sharon Jalbert, a Stratford resident who works in the laundry department at the Milford home, said her husband had a knee operation and she's having a hard time getting it paid even though she obtained health care coverage through the federal COBRA law that allows employees to continue coverage at their own expense.
James Conyers, a dietary supervisor at the Milford home, said he avoids any strenuous activities so he doesn't injure himself.
The workers qualify for unemployment insurance and receive strike benefits, union officials said. The average salary is $15.64 per hour for jobs that include nurses, nursing assistants, laundry, housekeeping and dietary workers, said Deborah Chernoff, spokeswoman for District 1199 of the Service Employees Union.
"Given the circumstances, people are doing remarkably well," Chernoff said. "Obviously it's a tough economy and these are people who were not making a lot of money to begin with. They're quite determined and they're holding strong."
On Wednesday, about 50 strikers marched in front of the Milford home carrying signs such as "HealthBridge your contract is prehistoric" with pictures of dinosaurs. One striker shouted into a bullhorn and others responded as two security guards in yellow shirts watched closely nearby.
"We're here to drive you crazy," the worker shouted. "What you going to do, the NLRB is coming for you."