More than 100 long-term care workers blocked traffic in Hartford Wednesday afternoon in a protest calling for better wages, more affordable health care and other changes to their working conditions, saying they have put themselves at great risk to care for the vulnerable during the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’re the voice for the voiceless,” said Darlene Deprey, an LPN at Westside Care Center in Manchester. “Our patients can be your mother, father, brother, sister. One day it will be me. I take care of people how I pray people would take care of me. I’m not young anymore, one day that will be me.”
The protest, organized by SEIU 1199NE, a union that represents nursing home workers across the state, began on the sidewalk but soon the group took to the streets, marching in circles at the intersection of Farmington Avenue and Flower Street near a state Department of Social Services office before lying down on the road. They held signs with photos of workers who had died of COVID-19 like Cassondra Diaz, a receptionist at Chelsea Place Care Center in Hartford who died last April.
“Long-term care is a labor sector of jobs that are predominantly held by women.” the union said, in a written statement. “A majority of our union workforce is Black and Brown. And we continue to risk serious illness and death on a daily basis so that vulnerable populations in Connecticut can receive critical health care. Some 16 union long-term workers have paid the ultimate price due to COVID-19. Many more have lost loved ones or have suffered permanent damage from the virus.”
Speakers addressed the group near a coffin that had been set up in the road to represent nursing home workers and patients who have died of COVID-19. The union is pressing for what it calls a “Long-Term Care Workers Bill of Rights” that includes adequate supplies of personal protective equipment, a wage of no less than $20 an hour, affordable health insurance, paid sick leave, child care. It has called on state lawmakers to boost Medicaid rates and raise taxes on the wealthy to pay for it.
Hartford police had been given advance notice of the protest and blocked traffic further up the street to prevent motorists from approaching the demonstration.
Several speakers at the protest viewed the issue through a racial justice lens, saying their field is full of women and minorities who often feel overlooked compared to others in the health care profession.
“I’m so sick of them treating us as second-class health care workers,” said Angel Hawes, a personal care attendant who provides assistance to people who need help with daily tasks.
The nursing home workers’ union has taken issue with Gov. Ned Lamont’s proposed budget that was released last month, arguing that the state should raise taxes on the rich or take money from its $3 billion-plus rainy day fund to offer additional financial help to frontline workers. Lamont has resisted both options, and his budget relies largely on additional federal aid forthcoming from Washington to close projected deficits.
“It’s a shame that the priorities of working people are neglected by this budget proposal,” Rob Baril, president of the union, said last month.
The state has granted some extra money to nursing homes — which have borne the brunt of coronavirus-linked deaths in Connecticut — throughout the pandemic, including a $600 per diem for each patient at homes that were designated as COVID-19 recovery centers.
Jessika Harkay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.