Contract negotiations between employees of a nursing home in Lexington Park and its owners briefly stalled over a remark workers assert was made by a company manager who told an employee, in essence, that if she wanted health care she could go to the local welfare office.

Company officials say that no employee was told to apply for welfare benefits.

Four employees from Bayside Care Center, accompanied by about two dozen union supporters, marched to the St. Mary's County Department of Social Services office in Leonardtown on Wednesday. Once there, two of the workers picked up applications for public assistance to dramatize their displeasure over the company official's purported remark.

"The benefits are a major issue at the bargaining table," said Thomas P. McNutt, secretary-treasurer of the United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 400, which represents 80 employees at the nursing home. The employees at the 125-bed nursing home -- nurse's assistants, certified medical assistants, housekeepers, and dietary and laundry workers -- are asking for a 50-cent hourly raise and health insurance coverage for their dependents.

"And to be so indifferent as to tell your own employees that in order to get health care they'd have to go on welfare is just obnoxious. This is not a good corporate citizen," McNutt said.

But officials of Home Quality Management Inc., the Florida-based company that owns and operates Bayside Care Center and other nursing homes in seven other states, dispute the union's version of the manager's remark, apparently made to one union member.

"We didn't say that," said Elizabeth Fago, chairman and chief operating officer of Home Quality Management, whose remarks to an employee are at the center of the dispute. "One employee was told that if they couldn't afford premiums for dependents and if their income was at a certain level, they could qualify for [social services]."

"I think Mr. McNutt was exaggerating to these people," Fago said.

There are a few unions in St. Mary's County -- one representing federal employees at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station and another representing teachers in the public school system -- but contract disputes have traditionally been quiet and private affairs.

So when Local 400 started making noise about issues at the bargaining table, the small nursing home in southern St. Mary's County was suddenly in the spotlight.

Fago and Pat Stewart, a company attorney, said that Home Quality Management pays for health premiums of the 120 employees at the nursing home. When the company took over from another firm in the fall of 1997, Fago said, employee benefits were increased to include 100 percent tuition reimbursement and additional holidays.

Stewart said a more important issue in current negotiations is the union's insistence on requiring all employees in the bargaining unit to join the union or be fired.

"The company position is that should not be the case," Stewart said. "We don't think employees should be forced to join the union in order to work" at the nursing home.

Last year, just days before the September election in which workers voted to unionize, employee Barbara Courtney said she had a conversation with Fago about her plans for reducing health care costs.

"She told me there was a public program where I might get insurance for my family. It was like she was telling me to go to the welfare office," Courtney said. "I mean, she just lowered me down to the ground."

Courtney, 35, said she set aside her pride and took Fago's advice and applied for welfare because she couldn't afford paying $195 every two weeks to maintain health coverage for her husband and three children.

"I mean, I was just working for the health insurance," Courtney said.

Since December, the nursing home owners and the new union have been in contract negotiations, McNutt said.

At the heart of the talks is an effort by the union to have employees' children and other dependents included under the health insurance plan. Under the present arrangement, if employees want dependents covered, they would have to pay an average of $375 a month out of their own pockets.

"It's really unreasonable. We're not making that kind of money to pay for that kind of insurance. There's no way," said Pam Roach, a nurse's assistant who is a union member and makes $7.50 an hour.

To insure her husband and 18-year-old son under her health care plan would cost about $438 a month, union officials said.

"This nursing home is short-staffed, and workers are working overtime to provide the best care they can for the patients," said Jim Lowthers, president of Local 400. "Now management is abdicating its responsibility to provide health coverage for their workers' families, sending them to the local welfare office."

About 40 percent of the nursing home's work force is married with children, McNutt said.

The United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400 has about 40,000 workers in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina and the District.

Most of them are employed by retail grocery stores such as Giant and Safeway, but the union also represents pharmacists, registered nurses and medical technicians, McNutt said.

Contract negotiations are continuing, and both sides acknowledged progress in the most recent meeting last week.