$15 Minimum Wage Creates Fault Lines Between SNFs, Employees in CT as Strike Threat Remains

A proposal to increase the minimum wage in Connecticut has employees hopeful for higher salaries — and operators worried about even tighter margins moving forward.

Nursing care providers in the Constitution State, already facing the threat of a strike by about 2,500 employees at 20 facilities, have become increasingly concerned about the potential for a higher minimum wage, the non-profit news organization The Connecticut Mirror reported on Monday.

“Now you have the line staff making the same as the skilled staff or close to it, and that just puts pressure right up the chain,” Kevin O’Connell, chief executive officer of senior housing and rehab provider Geer Living, told the publication. “So while raising the minimum wage will certainly help employees, it will just exacerbate the problems I face.”

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Minimum wage in Connecticut currently sits at $10.10 per hour, higher than the federal mark of $7.25, and leaders are pushing a variety of proposals to gradually boost that figure up to $15. The state’s Democratic governor, Ned Lamont, supports a plan to reach that threshold by 2023, the Mirror noted, while state lawmakers prefer a bill that would bring a $15 minimum by 2022.

Either way, the cost to providers could be steep: To help offset the gain, the state’s 35 non-profit nursing centers would need to find an additional $8 million to $9 million in annual funding, LeadingAge Connecticut president Mag Morelli told the Mirror, with O’Connell estimating the bill at $70,000 for his company.

The problem for operators and workers alike — as in countless other states across the country — remains the state’s Medicaid rates, which both sides acknowledge as a major source of underfunding in the industry. The program covers about 70% of all nursing home costs in Connecticut, according to the CT Post, with only small increases in recent years. Lamont has also proposed suspending state Medicaid funding increases over the next two fiscal years amidst budget shortfalls, a move that prompted about 2,500 unionized nursing home employees to authorize a strike action last month.

Though the strike was originally scheduled for May 1, leaders at 1199SEIU put the plan on hold amid potential signs of progress; however, a disappointing budget proposal renewed the union’s calls for a strike as of late last week.

Speaking to Skilled Nursing News in mid-April, before the initial strike was called off, 1199SEIU spokesman Pedro Zayas said many union members had been working without contracts for more than two years — and that the strike was also about ensuring proper staffing and, by extension, quality resident care.

“Many of our members have complained that they are really working short, so sometimes they have one assistant for 30 people,” Zayas said.

Zayas also pointed to the changing nature of nursing home residents in the state, noting that many facilities need greater resources to care for the higher-acuity patients that skilled nursing facilities have increasingly begun to target amid reimbursement shifts and the rise of home health.

“The last thing our members want is to see themselves in a situation where they can’t do the job right,” Zayas said.

And doing the job right can be difficult if workers don’t earn enough to survive. Nursing facility janitor Howard Francis told the Mirror that a raise from $13 to $15 per hour would allow him to pay a backlog of auto and medical bills, and potentially buy a cell phone.

Careene Reid, a certified nursing assistant at a Hartford facility, already makes $15.12 per hour but has only seen a 27-cent raise since 2015. She told the Mirror that she hoped a minimum-wage boost would trickle down to her position as well.

“It is not fair for a worker to get $15 an hour just to flip a burger when we’re in the nursing homes. We’re certified with the state. We had to go to school,” she told the publication. “We don’t expect somebody to just walk off the street and do it.”