Work­ers, hospi­tal at stale­mate on con­tract talks

Union says staff can’t af­ford health in­sur­ance

The News-Times - - NEWS - By Justin Papp Justin.papp.scni.com; @justin­j­papp1; 203-842-2586

Maria Vazquez loves her job as a pa­tient care tech­ni­cian at Nor­walk Hospi­tal, but her work­ing con­di­tions have got­ten pro­gres­sively more dif­fi­cult to deal with.

“I’ve been work­ing 10 years and I love my pa­tients. I love to work,” Vazquez said. “But it’s get­ting worse and worse. Some­times I even think to look into an­other job.”

In the last five years, Vazquez’s pay rate has in­creased only $0.50, mak­ing it dif­fi­cult, she said, to af­ford the bare ne­ces­si­ties in ad­di­tion to the health in­sur­ance pro­vided by the hospi­tal.

“When you have a low salary, you’re work­ing for in­sur­ance and for gro­ceries. If you don’t have an­other backup, a hus­band or fam­ily and friends, you don’t sur­vive,” Vasquez said.

Vazquez is part of roughly 500 Nor­walk Hospi­tal ser­vice work­ers and 24 skilled main­te­nance work­ers whose con­tract ne­go­ti­a­tions with the hospi­tal — a mem­ber of the West­ern Con­necti­cut Health­care Net­work along with New Mil­ford and Dan­bury hos­pi­tals — have hit a stale­mate.

The work­ers — who fill a va­ri­ety of rolls, in­clud­ing skilled tech­ni­cians, car­pen­ters, pa­tient care tech­ni­cians and sec­re­taries — op­pose three ma­jor points of the con­tract: the two per­cent an­nual raise, a new paid time off cal­cu­la­tion that would re­sult in roughly 150 vet­eran em­ploy­ees los­ing days off, and a change to the work­ers’ in­sur­ance that would elim­i­nate flex spend­ing ac­counts, a value of roughly $1,200 a year per em­ployee, es­ti­mated Ja­son Ric­cio, a rep­re­sen­ta­tive from Con­necti­cut Health Care As­so­ci­ates, the union to which Nor­walk Hospi­tal’s nurses, main­te­nance and ser­vice work­ers be­long.

“WCHN val­ues all em­ploy­ees and will con­tinue good faith ne­go­ti­a­tions with CHCA that are timely, cor­dial and re­spect­ful. We look for­ward to reaching fi­nal con­tract terms some­time soon with both the Nor­walk Hospi­tal skilled main­te­nance and ser­vice work­ers,” An­drea Rynn, di­rec­tor of pub­lic and gov­ern­ment re­la­tions for WCHN, said in a state­ment. She did not com­ment on the specifics of the ne­go­ti­a­tion.

“I have peo­ple that are mak­ing $13, $14, $15 an hour. Two per­cent of that would be noth­ing,” CHCA Lo­cal 1213 Pres­i­dent Annabel Figueroa said.

For a hospi­tal worker mak­ing $13 an hour, a two per­cent raise would mean an ad­di­tional $0.26 per hour. For some­one mak­ing $15 an hour, it would be a $0.30 bump. With a three per­cent raise, those work­ers would see a $0.39 and $0.45 hourly pay in­crease, re­spec­tively.

“They’re already the low­est paid group. They’re pay­ing through the nose for health in­sur­ance, and now they want to take away this flex ben­e­fit which is a huge prob­lem for a lot of these em­ploy­ees be­cause they’ve come to rely on it,” Ric­cio said.

Ac­cord­ing to Figueroa, even un­der the cur­rent con­tract, which still al­lows flex spend­ing ac­counts, many of her co-work­ers still can’t af­ford in­sur­ance.

“Our in­sur­ance con­tin­ues to go up. We have many em­ploy­ees that can not af­ford the med­i­cal in­sur­ance, so they’re be­com­ing a bur­den to the state be­cause they’re ap­ply­ing for Husky,” said Figueroa, re­fer­ring to Con­necti­cut’s Med­i­caid program. “I see my co-work­ers, when they come to us they cry be­cause they say, ‘We can­not af­ford our in­sur­ance.’ ”

Some opt out all to­gether and try to avoid the doc­tor. They wouldn’t be able to af­ford treat­ment at the hospi­tal where they work.

“To me they are just try­ing to take, take, take away,” Figueroa said. “We don’t as em­ploy­ees have any­thing more to give them.”

Con­necti­cut Health Care Work­ers also rep­re­sents bar­gain­ing units in New Mil­ford and Dan­bury, though those con­tracts are not cur­rently up for ne­go­ti­a­tion.

Nor­walk’s union only formed in 2016, prompted by what the work­ers called wors­en­ing con­di­tions.

“They were tak­ing ev­ery­thing away, that’s why we brought the union in,” said John O’Con­nor, a trans­porter who has worked for the hospi­tal for 19 years.

The union’s first con­tract ex­pired this year, be­gin­ning with nurses who reached a deal in Oc­to­ber. The main­te­nance work­ers were next, and nearly agreed to the terms in Novem­ber, but ul­ti­mately voted by a slim mar­gin not to rat­ify their new con­tract. Ac­cord­ing to hospi­tal spokesman Rynn, “Since that time and un­til very re­cently, the union has de­clined WCHN at­tempts to sit down to re­solve any dif­fer­ences.”

They two groups are now sched­uled to meet Wed­nes­day. The ser­vice work­ers last met Jan. 3 with the hospi­tal’s ad­min­is­tra­tion, and have yet to come to the point of a vote.

“At the ta­ble the hospi­tal is cry­ing broke, say­ing there’s no money in the bud­get,” Ric­cio said. “But then there are ar­ti­cles com­ing out in the New­sTimes that are try­ing to gar­ner sup­port for the Health Quest merger, in 2019, in which Dr. Mur­phy (CEO of WCHN) is es­sen­tially say­ing both or­ga­ni­za­tions are fi­nan­cially sound.”

The quote, “Both or­ga­ni­za­tions are fi­nan­cially strong and deeply rooted in the com­mu­nity,” from Dr. John Mur­phy, ap­peared in a Dec. 4 story in the Dan­bury pa­per. Mur­phy was speak­ing at a pub­lic ses­sion about the merger be­tween the WCHN and Health Quest, a Hud­son Val­ley-based med­i­cal group with hos­pi­tals in Carmel, Pough­keep­sie and Rhinebeck, N.Y., as well as Sharon, Conn. The merger was an­nounced in March 2018 and is ex­pected to launch in 2019 and has many of the hospi­tal work­ers un­sure about what the fu­ture will hold.

Erik Traut­mann / Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia

Nor­walk Con­nci­cut Health­care As­so­ci­ates Lo­cal 1213 Pres­i­dent Annabel Figueroa and mem­bers of her unit out­side Nor­walk Hospi­tal on Thurs­day. Roughly 24 skilled main­te­nance work­ers and 500 ser­vice work­ers at Nor­walk Hospi­tal, re­cently hit a stale­mate in con­tract ne­go­ti­a­tions with Dan­bury-based West­ern Con­necti­cut Health Net­work.

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