Endangering the Elderly

Judge orders company to rehire unionized health care workers who may have endangered lives of elderly patients

December 12, 2012

A federal judge appointed by former President Bill Clinton has ordered five Connecticut nursing homes to rehire striking employees despite a criminal investigation into allegations that some of those workers endangered the lives of seniors.

Judge Robert Chatigny on Wednesday ordered Healthbridge Systems to lay off hundreds of replacement workers in order to make room for the 600 striking members of the SEIU Local 1199, one of the Atlantic region’s most powerful unions. Those workers walked out of their jobs over a contract dispute in July. Some employees allegedly tampered with the identification materials and medical records of patients, including some suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s, on their way out the door.

Chatigny’s ruling came despite the objections of Lorraine Mulligan, a registered nurse with 25 years of experience who was hired by Healthbridge to evaluate the impact of the strike on patient care and who concluded that rehiring workers would put patients in jeopardy.

"The nature and severity of the … incidents … put the safety, health, and well-being of the residents of those facilities in immediate jeopardy," she said. "A court order requiring the reinstatement of any of them or additionally those who had knowledge of sabotage and failed to act would expose the residents to immediate danger and put them at risk of suffering serious harm or death."

Connecticut state police are conducting a criminal investigation into the vandalism though no charges have been filed and the company has filed a separate federal lawsuit alleging that the union engaged in mafia intimidation tactics to bargain for increased wages and benefits. The union must respond to that suit by Dec. 18.

The National Labor Relations Board tapped Chatigny in August to evaluate union allegations that the company did not bargain in good-faith when it issued its "last, best, and final contract" offer in June. Chatigny granted the union an injunction against the contract. Healthbridge will have five days to comply with the ruling, but they are expected to appeal, according to a source familiar with the case.

"The whole point of the legal maneuvering is to force [the company] to hire back the workers right away," the source said. "But their parent company is in Chapter 11 [bankruptcy] … you can expect an appeal all the way up."

The union was pleased with the ruling, calling it a victory for Connecticut workers.

"It's a complete confirmation and vindication of everything we've been saying all along," union spokeswoman Deborah Chernoff told the Connecticut Post.

Whether it is a victory for the elderly patients that call Healthbridge home is another matter, however. Mulligan said patients and their families reported better care under the non-union replacement workers.

"A comparison of resident satisfaction survey data for all facilities for the period of April 2012 through June 2012, when nursing duties were carried out by the old staff to the period of July 2012 to September 2012, when the new staff was present, show an improvement in five of the six categories identified," she said in a brief filed to the NLRB.

Several family members also testified in written briefs that care had improved dramatically under the new staff.

"My son and I have discussed the change to the quality of care and he agrees with me that things are much better since the workers went out on strike," said Jack Herr, whose wife has spent two years in the system’s Danbury facility, the site of alleged vandalism during the walkout. "Even my wife, who cannot speak to me, has indicated by shaking her head that she likes the new staff better than the prior staff."

The union may not enjoy the support of patients and relatives like Herr, but it does enjoy support from many powerful Connecticut Democrats. Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy walked an anti-HealthBridge picket line with 1199 members in July.

The union spent $7 million on the 2010 election, including $400,000 on Malloy’s campaign.

Chatigny has friends in high places. He officiated the wedding ceremony of former Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd and was nominated by President Barack Obama to New York City’s Second Circuit Court of Appeals in 2010.

The nomination was later withdrawn after Republicans objected to the leniency he exhibited in sentencing child sex offenders, as well as his role in defending Woody Allen’s relationship with his then-minor stepdaughter, Soon-Yi Previn.