During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, as nursing homes and other healthcare facilities faced shortages of personal protection equipment and staff, tensions mounted between Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration and officials from SEIU 1199NE, the state’s largest healthcare workers union, according to emails received under a Freedom of Information request.
On April 11, 2020, Gov. Lamont issued an executive order establishing COVID recovery sites to prevent COVID-positive patients from reentering nursing homes, but union officials had already been raising the alarm regarding equipment and staffing at a time of intense fear and outbreaks of infection for frontline workers and nursing home residents.
An April 1 email exchange between SEIU 1199NE President Rob Baril and several administration officials outlined some of the union’s issues as Baril asked for a “cross departmental meeting.”
“Over the past week we have attempted to interface primarily at the departmental level around various crises including but not limited to: chronic and systematic underesourcing [sic] of PPE across nursing homes, including with COVID-19 positive patients; chronic short staffing across sectors (public and private); a failure to provide any communication or guidance to homecare workers/consumers regarding preventative measures/PPE,” Baril wrote. “Limited and piecemeal interactions are failing to result in effective solutions for healthcare workers.”
By April 15, SEIU issued a take-action call and petition to members to call on the administration to fund more protective equipment and provide relief for housing and childcare needs for healthcare workers, as well as hazard pay.
As the fatality rate at Connecticut nursing homes sharply increased, the state stepped up inspections, but there were safety concerns among the inspectors who were represented by SEIU 1199. Mary Duval of SEIU emailed then Department of Public Health Commissioner Renee Coleman-Mitchell on April 23 asking for clarification on a number of points for her members.
Duval said members were concerned about PPE availability, hostile nursing home administrators, compensatory time, and possible hazmat suits. The email made its way to Josh Geballe, Lamont’s chief operating officer at the time.
“On the one hand 1199 is holding press conferences and calling us racists for not doing enough to support nursing home workers and hold nursing homes accountable,” Geballe wrote. “On the other hand, 1199 members who work at DPH and who’s job is to go out and do the inspections are giving us a hard time about providing support to nursing home workers and holding nursing homes accountable.”
The back and forth between the union and the administration had been playing out in the media for weeks, with the Lamont administration assuring residents they were being proactive in protecting people, but Baril saying not enough was being done to protect nursing home staff and residents.
According to notes from an April 30 meeting between SEIU officials, Jonathan Harris and Amanda Klay of the Office of the Governor and Brie Wolf and Av Harris with the Department of Public Health, the mounting tension became a matter of disrespect and hurt feelings between both sides.
Jesse Martin and Katie Traber, both of SEIU, said they were essentially being shut out by the Department of Social Services, with Traber saying an email regarding PPE from DSS “felt very disrespectful and dismissive.”
“Our communication with DSS is very important to our homecare members in the sense that nothing happens in homecare unless DSS does it,” Martin said. “The email referenced above was like a nursing home boss slapping a CNA across the face. I’m not trying to be overly reactionary but we take this messaging seriously and need there to be a lens of respect.”
Harris said they will explore the PPE issues with DSS, but that there needs to be respect on both sides.
“The reason for our call today is because both sides are feeling disrespected,” Harris said. “We both need to take a leap of faith because there is the same feeling of disrespect on the agency side when they are working really hard and there is a personal feel to the way they are being targeted.”
Martin said, “If you want to heal that divide, we need a clear apology,” and that if a nursing home boss “had made some of the comments that were made by some agency partners, the workers would walk out of the building and go on strike.”
While the parties appeared to come to some understanding, with SEIU saying they had a good relationship with the Office of the Governor, Traber mentioned Lamont’s appearances on the national stage and visits to nursing homes.
“When the Governor goes on MSNBC and talks about nursing homes and mentions NOTHING about workers, that hurts,” Traber said. “If the Governor visits any nursing homes, we want to be alerted. We are having a very large labor disagreement with Apple facilities. There will be picketing because of the behavior of the employer (cutting hero pay, cutting hours during a pandemic and breaking the contract, etc.). We heard rumors of the Governor visiting one of these facilities.”
SEIU did, in fact, hold an informational picket outside Apple facilities in October of 2020, and filed unfair labor practice charges against the company with the National Labor Relations Board.
“Staffing numbers in nursing homes are at crisis levels,” Martin said in a post by SEIU 1199NE. “Across the State, nursing homes are suffering from a failing Medicaid system that does not prioritize safe staffing levels, livable wages and appropriate benefits for direct care staff.”
A study conducted by the Worker and Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic at Yale Law School on behalf of SEIU 1199, found the union’s concerns were valid and the administration’s response lacking. The report noted that nursing home workers had to share personal protective equipment and clothe themselves in garbage bags during the pandemic.
“Despite the DPH’s own findings of flagrant violations of CDC guidelines in nursing homes, this report reveals that DPH leadership under the Lamont administration made little use of its primary enforcement tools: inspections and fines,” the report said. “A study of all oversight documents the DPH has made publicly available revealed that citations were issued for only 34 incidents related to COVID-19 from March 2020 to February 2021, for a total of $98,081 in fines across all nursing homes.”
The report also noted that nursing homes remain short-staffed and that the pandemic “revealed the deadly consequences of long-term underfunding and understaffing.”
In the years following those discussions and emails, nursing home workers were able to secure more pay and benefits under the threat of strike. Lamont announced a $280 million deal with SEIU 1199 in 2021. Renee Coleman-Mitchell and Av Harris, both of DPH, were terminated, resulting in lawsuits against the administration. Geballe stepped down from his role in Connecticut government in 2022 to re-enter the private sector.
But, according to reports, nursing home worker shortages remain, and SEIU continued to picket against Apple into 2022 “to demand better pay, staffing, and to demand that their employer apply for the state funding that 1199 nursing home workers were able to secure in the state budget for health care and retirement benefits,” according to a call to action by the union.
Nursing home deaths accounted for the majority of COVID-related deaths in Connecticut, and 21 nursing home workers died as a result of the virus, with thousands more infected.