Wearing a mask and speaking through a megaphone, Jesse Martin prompted a crowd that had gathered outside the state Department of Public Health building in Hartford late Thursday afternoon.
“What do we want?” he asked.
“Hazard pay!” the crowd yelled back.
“When do we want it?”
Martin, vice president of labor union SEIU 1199NE, organizers, and long-term care workers from Connecticut nursing homes, group homes and home health care agencies delivered several petitions that call for better protections and pay, and accountability for decisions made during the first couple months of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
One of the petitions specifically demands the removal of DPH’s Barbara Cass, who oversees quality and safety compliance at nursing home facilities for the department.
More than 60 percent of all COVID-19 deaths in Connecticut have been among nursing home residents, according to the latest state data.
Workers claim that Cass ignored demands for more personal protective equipment and relied too heavily on the word of facility administrators and home operators when investigating and inspecting homes. Workers said this put themselves and their patients more at risk.
Martin said more than 2,000 nursing home workers signed the petition.
“She’s regularly chosen the word of bosses over the words of front-line caregivers, and that’s unacceptable,” he said.
During a briefing Thursday, state officials said they understand the concerns coming from these front-line workers but strongly declared their support for Cass and the work that she’s done throughout the pandemic.
“She inherited a really hard job overseeing all these nursing homes right in the middle of a pandemic,” said Gov. Ned Lamont, “doing everything she could to keep them inspected, make sure they’re following the protocols, make sure they were getting the PPE that they needed, and I think she operated heroically.”
Acting Public Health Commissioner Deidre Gifford added that Cass, who is a registered nurse, has been instrumental in setting up the state’s COVID-19 recovery facilities, which were designed and staffed to handle complications of COVID-19 among patients who were being discharged from hospitals and needed nursing home care.
“So while I very much support our heroic nursing home workers, I also want to say that the state Department of Public Health supports Barbara Cass 100 percent,” Gifford said.
In an emailed statement, Lamont’s chief of staff, Paul Mounds, wrote that Cass has “unquestionably helped to save lives” during the public health crisis and that Connecticut “is fortunate to have her help in guiding the state’s decision-making.”
But union members maintain that Cass did not take their concerns and needs seriously.
Caregivers also petitioned the state to implement regulations that allow workers to be able to report concerning and unsafe conditions or possible coronavirus exposures without fear of retaliation.
Employees asserted their right to work safely.
But some members like Annier Pennant, a home health care worker, said there is still an inadequate supply of things like personal protective equipment and other resources for workers and their patients.
“I don’t know why the state doesn’t trust us to say what we need,” Pennant said. “We know our client the best. We know what they need.”
Union protesters crammed into the lobby and waited on the front steps of state department buildings for more than an hour as they tried to hand-deliver the petitions to an official. But when no one came to receive the signed documents, union members taped them to the front doors.