"A Waking Nightmare": Bridgeport Nursing Home Members Fight Monstrous Greed

The blue and yellow sign greeting staff and visitors to the Bridgeport Health Care Center nursing home reads, “Dedicated to Caring.”

Those words are profoundly true for the 200 dedicated staff who work there and are represented by AFSCME Local 1522 (Bridgeport Board of Education/BHCC).  But they are a cruel irony weighed against the monstrous greed that has forced the facility to close this spring.

“It’s a wide-awake nightmare,” said Local 1522 President Sherrie Weller. “There’s been a level of torture and torment nobody can imagine.”

Weller’s reference is to the criminal behavior of the nursing home’s former owner and operator, Chaim Stern of Flushing, NY, who diverted assets from the workers’ retirement and health care funds, and routinely failed to pay the workers on time.

In January, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Connecticut confirmed the nursing home had been ordered to close permanently after negotiations to sell it to a new owner fell apart.

The shuttering of BHCC means more than 160 residents have to be moved to other facilities, and leaves Local 1522 members facing unemployment.

“I feel so bad for the patients. We grew to be a family,” Teresa Ortiz, a certified nursing assistant who worked at BHCC for 23 years, reflected. “I spent more time with residents than I did with my own family.”

“It’s been really depressing,” Luisa Pires, a dietary aide with 33 years on the job, added. “Not as much for me and my co-workers but for the patients. We are their family.”

In January, the 71-year-old Stern plead guilty to multiple federal charges of embezzlement and tax offenses. The charges included diverting more than $4 million in retirement plan assets to a New York-based religious corporation and himself, and misapplying nearly $306,000 from the BHCC health plan, using those monies for his charity, nursing home operations and personal use.

L-R; Retired BHCC workers and Local 1522 members Charlie Cravatas and Teresa Ortiz, and Local 1522 President Sherrie Weller.

Stern’s failure to pay third party health care administrators has left BHCC workers with unpaid medical claims (as high as six figures), creditors dogging them and personal credit ratings shattered.

Ortiz now works at a unionized nursing home in Hamden. She faces $75,000 in unpaid medical bills. Her husband, who was covered through her insurance, was injured on the job and required multiple surgeries. Ortiz herself suffers from a form of lupus that causes a chronic skin condition. She could not afford the out-of-pocket prescription drug costs ($160 for a 30 day supply) due to the lapses in her coverage.

Charlie Cravatas, a licensed practical nurse, retired last year after 38 years. He won’t miss the rush to see if his paycheck was covered.

“If you didn’t run to the bank right away to cash your paycheck, it would bounce,” he said. 

Weller is a Bridgeport Board of Education employee. She has spent countless hours advocating for BHCC employees, trying to make them whole and working through the court system to find a buyer for the nursing home.

In 2016, the U.S. Department of Labor sued Stern and BHCC. Council 4 filed a civil complaint on behalf of Local 1522 members against Stern, a multi-year effort that has led to a tentative settlement stipulating that the workers will receive their retirement benefits, compensation for their unpaid health care claims and have their credit ratings restored. 

Local 1522 has also secured assistance from the Connecticut Department of Labor’s Rapid Response Team to conduct special information sessions to help workers who will be laid off from BHCC.

Miriam Perez is one of the remaining 150 workers in limbo. The certified nurse’s assistant has worked at BHCC for an incredible 45 years and is worried about her job prospects because she is in her early 60s. “I wanted to retire at 65,” she said. “This has been hard on so many people.”

Pires echoed that sentiment. “It will be hard to leave. I’m worried [about getting a new job] because of my age.”

Local 1522 members remain more concerned about the residents at BHCC. Perez told the story of one patient suffering with dementia who cried uncontrollably when she was moved out, telling the staff, “I don’t want to leave. I want to leave when you guys leave.”

“It broke my heart when I saw her crying,” Perez recalled. “When we see residents like this, it’s really hard. They depend on us.”

BHCC workers were recently locked out of a building where they were scheduled to have a union meeting.

Stern is scheduled to be sentenced on April 8. Union members will be on hand to deliver impact statement to persuade the judge that Stern should serve the maximum time of 20 years in prison. 

BHCC workers acknowledge that no settlement will ever make them whole for the financial and emotional damage they have suffered.

“You can’t reimburse people’s mental state,” Cravatas said. “I feel bad for everybody who’s had to worry every time a phone rings that there’s a bill collector on the other end.”

Still, Local 1522 members realize that without their union, they would receive nothing in the way of compensation for Stern’s criminal activities. 

“I’m grateful for everything the union has done,” Cravatas said.