Despite promises, some low-paid nursing home workers are still waiting for wage increases
Nearly two years after Massachusetts lawmakers approved $35.5 million in public money to boost wages for the lowest-paid nursing home workers — who care for some of the state’s most frail residents — a new report indicates some workers may still be waiting for their money.
Following several extensions and lapsed deadlines, 12 nursing homes are still not in compliance with state regulations, according to the report from the state’s Executive Office of Health and Human Services.
Nine of the facilities have been given until mid-June to award the roughly $502,000 to workers, while three other nursing homes must repay several thousands of dollars in misspent funds, the report said.
In all, 97 percent of the state’s roughly 400 nursing homes have awarded the money to workers, regulators said.
But Senator Mark C. Montigny, a Democrat from New Bedford who has advocated for more transparency in the nursing home industry, said regulators should stop granting extensions. He filed legislation last week that would speed up the process, requiring nursing homes to award workers the money within a year after lawmakers approve the spending.
“We should fine the violators, and take the money out of their operations to make sure all of these hard-working people are paid what they deserve,” Montigny said.
The report said regulators gave two-month extensions late last year to 46 nursing homes that had not complied, then granted another two-month extension to nine others when audits revealed they were also out of compliance.
Massachusetts Senior Care Association, a nursing home trade group, said in a statement it expects all nursing homes will comply by the June 17 deadline. Tara Gregorio, the group’s president, said the industry is struggling because of a lack of state funding.
“Nursing homes are experiencing extraordinary challenges recruiting and retaining direct care staff due to an inability to offer competitive wages, which are fundamentally tied to government reimbursement,” Gregorio said in a statement.
Her group is again lobbying for more money to boost nursing home wages in the proposed new state budget that starts July 1.
Nursing home owners in 2016 said years of anemic government funding left them desperate for money to boost wages of their lowest-paid workers who bathe, feed, and care for patients. They lobbied for $90 million. Lawmakers awarded the industry $35.5 million that year, then issued another $35.5 million last July.
Regulators have yet to release information on whether the money from last year was spent correctly. A spokeswoman for Health and Human Services said an interim report is expected “in the coming weeks.”
Officials for some of the companies identified in the state’s latest report as not properly paying their workers said they believe they followed the rules, and are working with regulators to clear up confusion.
Others said they were surprised to hear from regulators.
Wingate HealthCare, which operates 20 nursing homes in Massachusetts, said it just learned one of its facilities, Wingate at Wilbraham, did not pay workers $124,812 it was supposed to, according to regulators. A spokesman said it was reviewing the information and would comply if the underspending was substantiated.
Synergy Health Centers owns two of the nursing homes identified by regulators for not correctly paying roughly $230,000 to workers — Merrimack Valley Health Center and Woodbriar of Wilmington. A company spokesman said the courts have placed five of the company’s 10 Massachusetts nursing homes, including Merrimack Valley and Woodbriar, in receivership because of financial problems, but Synergy is working to comply with state rules.
Now, as lawmakers debate a new state budget, advocates for nursing home workers are demanding that the lowest-paid workers, including nurses’ aides, and those who cook, clean, and do laundry, end up with the lion’s share of wage increases and bonuses from the next proposed pool of public money, $38.3 million.
In December, regulators concluded that higher-paid registered nurses and licensed practical nurses received the largest bonuses, and many of the raises, awarded from the money lawmakers approved in 2016.
Montigny’s new budget amendment calls for more stringent oversight, and requires nursing homes to spend the money on these poorly paid workers. If nursing homes choose to spend the money on higher-paid nurses, they would be required to give “proportional” benefits to lower-paid staff.
Tim Foley, executive vice president of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, said in a statement his group is committed to ensuring the money goes to those workers “who need the most support.”
“The failure and long delays by some companies in dispersing these funds to workers as required is deeply concerning,” Foley said. “It highlights the need for continued oversight and strong enforcement of the regulations.”