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Fair and prudent: better pay for long-term care workers

Long-term health care workers, universally recognized as frontline essential caregivers during the most dire months of the pandemic, are currently voting whether to strike soon against dozens of Connecticut nursing homes and group homes. They argue that they are underpaid and their services historically taken for granted.

Their issue is not so much with the operators of the privately owned facilities but with state government, which pays for the care of about 80 percent of nursing home residents and many others in group homes. Union officials report that the voting thus far has been heavily in favor of a strike of 3,400 workers starting this week and another 2,000 a week later. All say that Gov. Ned Lamont is key to meeting their demands.

Workers represented by SEIU District 1199 New England are seeking wage increases; access to affordable health insurance; increased staffing; and a bill of rights for their profession. The workers and their union have the ear of the legislature’s majority leadership, but the governor’s budget plans fall short.

Many of these workers are the same folks who lacked personal protective equipment and had to wear garbage bags as makeshift PPE; they are the same ones who themselves contracted COVID-19 infections in great numbers as the pandemic swept through the nursing homes where they worked. In an irony not lost on them, they are still being thanked by yard signs and homemade hearts, but they earn just over the state minimum wage for a job that even in normal times calls for skillful caring of the most vulnerable people. Most are women and many are minorities.

The U.S. model for long-term care of people without assets is for privately owned and operated facilities to be paid by the state, which depends as much as it can on federal Medicaid dollars. Coverage includes patients whose prolonged illnesses have used up all their own money, requiring the state to pick up their costs.

Insufficient payment to the operators of the facilities was an issue for years before the COVID pandemic hit. Yet it is the terrible and deadly effects of the pandemic on both residents and staff in long-term care facilities that has gotten the attention of lawmakers — and has also stimulated federal funding that could be used to address shortfalls. Ironically, the disruptions of a strike could increase the risks, including insufficient or under-trained staff.

Connecticut’s legislative majority leaders said last week that federal coronavirus relief money and the state’s own improved financial picture should allow the state to respond to a “very strong equity argument” for long-term care workers and to avert a strike. They point to the state’s all-time-high budget reserves, a projected budget surplus and, most of all, the billions in federal relief funds coming over the next couple of years.

Even though Connecticut has known years of budget shortfalls, and the flow of federal money will indeed slow down, the governor and his administration must know the prudence of investment in human resources. Medicaid payments need to line up better with the costs of care, allowing workers to be compensated in keeping with the importance and difficulty of their work in unionized nursing homes but in non-union, long-term care facilities largely supported by government payments on behalf of residents.

Economic stimulus is the fundamental reason for the American Rescue Plan and other federal COVID relief funding; more, safer and better-paying jobs for thousands of workers would help to achieve that and also improve the lives of patients. Those facts alone should reassure the governor that increasing the budgeted payments for these services is pragmatic. But it is also the right thing to do. The fairness of adequately compensating these frontline workers, now that there is a means to do so, is really the bottom line. 

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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