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Tuesday, March 26 News

Contract stalemates, Union says hospital workers can’t afford health insurance

NORWALK — 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 (WCHN) 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.

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“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 News Times 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.

Figueroa, in her 15 years as a unit secretary, has seen conditions slowly worsen, one small change at a time. She said the hospital has shortened lunch breaks and tightened discipline on employees running late to work and may also potentially force workers — some of whom Figueroa said don’t have vehicles — to float between Norwalk and Danbury hospitals.

Other than the additional one percent wage increase the workers are requesting, the group’s goal is not to secure greater benefits. They said they’re merely trying to hold on to what they’ve already been given.

“The bottom line is that this hospital is not treating the employees in a fair way,” Figueroa said. “We’re not asking for miracles, we are just asking for what we have. Let us keep our (paid time off) how we have it. Let us keep our flex credits as we have it.”

Justin.papp.scni.com; @justinjpapp1; 203-842-2586

Justin Papp|General Assignment Reporter

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