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May 25, 2023

CT union calls group home strike while pay demands look unlikely

MARK PAZNIOKAS / CT MIRROR Striking group home workers arrive at the Capitol Wednesday to support nonprofit social service agencies rallying for more state funding.

While roughly 1,700 group home workers went on strike Wednesday and more than 1,000 social service advocates rallied at the Capitol, legislative leaders urged the industry to brace for a funding increase that would fall far short of its demands.

House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, told reporters before Wednesday’s House session that he expects the nonprofit agencies that deliver the bulk of state-sponsored services to get a 2.5% rate hike next fiscal year under the new budget still being negotiated with Gov. Ned Lamont.

Lawmakers are trying to tap other resources that could effectively boost the overall increase for the industry to about 3% or slightly higher, Ritter said, adding that the goal would be to maintain that support in the 2024-25 fiscal year.

But he also acknowledged that’s far short of what the industry and labor want to see from the state. Nonprofits say they need a 9% hike July 1 and another 7% boost in July 2024 just to neutralize the cost increases they sustained, largely due to high inflation, over the past two fiscal years.

And the state’s largest health care workers’ union, New England Health Care Employees Union SEIU 1199NE, wants its workers at group homes across Connecticut to have a new contract with “a pathway to $25/hour minimum wage.” Most now currently earn in the range of $17 to $18 per hour, according to the union.

“We know it’s not enough,” Ritter said, referring to the resources lawmakers expect to budget for the nonprofit sector that delivers the bulk of state-sponsored social services for people with developmental disabilities, patients struggling with mental illness or addiction, abused children, prison inmates planning reentry into society and others.

But Ritter also said legislators from both parties committed six years ago to live within a new spending cap, to recognize the volatility to certain income tax receipts tied to investment earnings and to focus on paying down the huge pension debt amassed by previous generations.

“We really have come a long way,” the speaker said. “We’ve just got to keep working it through.”

But critics say the pendulum has swung too far from irresponsible spending to dangerous austerity.

The state amassed a $4.3 billion surplus last fiscal year equal to roughly one-fifth of the General Fund and is on pace to finish $2.95 billion in the black this June 30, which would be the second-largest fiscal cushion in state history.

Meanwhile, high inflation and the coronavirus pandemic have weakened many programs that already had been strained throughout the 2000s and 2010s as a sluggish economy took its toll on many core programs.

The CT Community Nonprofit Alliance, which represents 300 community-based agencies, says the annual payments the industry gets from the state effectively are down $480 million from 2007 levels, after being adjusted for inflation.

And while the industry received a $330 million funding bump from the state across this fiscal year and last, the alliance said inflation and other factors that drove up costs wiped all of that out and then some.

SEIU 1199NE began strikes at 6 a.m. Wednesday at group homes and day programs run by six nonprofits: Oak Hill in Hartford, Mosaic residences in Cromwell, Whole Life, Inc. of New London, Network, Inc. in Manchester, and Caring Community of Connecticut and Alternative Services of Connecticut, both based in Colchester.

More than 1,700 workers, who care for more than 1,500 disabled clients, are seeking better wages and benefits.

“Wages and benefits in this sector have been stagnating for 15 years,” union President Rob Baril said. “It is a crime and a shame that human services workers, health care workers whose services are publicly funded, and yet our wages are insufficient to keep us out of poverty. All of the money for the wages and the services we provide comes from our state budget. It’s a shame that caregivers who are working full time are facing evictions, living in their cars, working two jobs and carrying thousands of dollars in medical debt. The state has billions in surplus money to end poverty for caregivers for individuals with disabilities.”

The state has said this is a problem for the union and nonprofit businesses to solve.

Department of Developmental Services spokesman Kevin Bronson said DDS and the Department of Public Health are monitoring sites where temporary workers have been added to ensure client care is proper.

But “while we cannot comment on the status of current contract negotiations between the union and private providers, we are hopeful this matter will be resolved soon,” Bronson said.

But a union spokesman said labor is really protesting against the state government. 

At least one nonprofit leader attended a union rally at the Capitol earlier this week in support of its funding requests. And SEIU 1199NE members came to the Capitol on Wednesday to support about 1,200 rallying social service advocates organized by the alliance and wearing green “Fund Nonprofits!” T-shirts.

Gian-Carl Casa, president and CEO of the CT Community Nonprofit Alliance, said the industry understands the union’s wage and benefit requests but said the problem cannot be solved unless state officials do more.

“I don’t see how 2.5% [rate hike] addresses the wage problems that the unions have raised, but I also don’t see how it allows other nonprofits to pay living wages,” Casa said, adding that inflation and inadequate wage funding already have forced many nonprofits to shrink program slots and staffing. “That’s only going to continue,” he added.

Ritter said legislators and Lamont are planning to budget some funds specifically to address the group home wage issue, though he didn’t disclose how much.

Those extra funds, possibly combined with some emergency federal pandemic relief that hasn’t been spent, should complement the baseline 2.5% rate hike the legislature expects to authorize for the coming fiscal year, he said.

But industry officials shouldn’t expect too much more, the speaker quickly added, because legislators have other core programs that need attention. Advocates specifically have been pressing for more funds for public colleges and universities, basic operating grants and special education assistance for municipal school districts and higher Medicaid reimbursement rates for doctors and other health care providers who treat poor patients.

“I think the general feeling is we’re living within our means and we’re being sustainable,” Ritter said, adding that social service workers and the industry remain high priorities. “We will always continue to try in the next year.”

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