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September 21, 2021

Threat of strikes returns at group homes for the developmentally disabled

Yehyun Kim | CT Mirror Kara Dwyer and other protestors with healthcare union SEIU 1199 in April.

State officials thought they’d dodged a political bullet last spring when they budgeted $184 million for the caregivers of Connecticut’s developmentally disabled — on the brink of a threatened strike.

They were wrong.

The state’s largest healthcare workers union announced Tuesday it would notify two nonprofits that operate dozens of group homes and day programs of plans to strike on Oct 5. They are Whole Life Inc. of New London and Network Inc. of Andover.

And leaders of SEIU District 1199 New England also warned that more of these community-based nonprofits — which deliver the bulk of state-sponsored social services for the disabled — also are at risk of a work stoppage this fall.

Caregivers at Whole Life and Network have been working under expired contracts for months now, but negotiators for labor and management haven’t been able to reach a new agreement on wages and benefits.

“This past year has been so difficult on everyone,” said Stephanie Deceus, vice president of the union’s group home division. Members caring for the disabled “put their lives on the line, put their families’ lives on the line.”

Many contracted the coronavirus through their jobs, and some died; others passed the virus to family members at home, Deceus said.

This only compounded the frustration of workers toiling in an industry that for decades has offered low wages and poor benefits, union leaders said.

District 1199 leaders didn’t disclose full details of their negotiations with nonprofit agency management, but union President Rob Baril said most members earn between $14 and $15 per hour and hope to reach $17.25 over the next two years.

The union also sought to increase retirement benefits and reduce worker healthcare costs.

Sherry Delorme, who works for a day program for the disabled in Tolland, said she routinely works as much as 140 hours every two weeks — 70 hours every seven days — to cover healthcare costs and to help support her six children.

“This is a workforce that truly does God’s work,” Baril said, adding that union members in group homes — predominantly women and racial minorities — are forgotten in political circles as often as are the disabled population they serve.

But nonprofits have their own financial woes.

Gov. Ned Lamont and the General Assembly included $184 million extra for nonprofit social services in the new two-year budget that began July 1, but not all of those funds are dedicated exclusively for worker compensation and benefits.

The industry suffers from decades of state underfunding, and $184 million extra — spread across two fiscal years — doesn’t reverse all of that damage.

Connecticut spends about $1.4 billion annually contracting with hundreds of community-based, private nonprofits to provide the bulk of state social services. That involves not just group homes and day programs for the developmentally disabled but many other services for patients struggling with mental illness and addiction, abused children, former inmates re-entering society and teens in crisis.

In terms of dollars, that’s larger than the departments of Transportation, Correction and Motor Vehicles combined.

Since 2002, state spending for nonprofits has grown by about 10%. After adjusting for inflation, nonprofits say they have lost money.

The CT Community Nonprofit Alliance, the state’s largest coalition of private nonprofit agencies, projects it would take an extra $462 million per year to make them whole. 

And while stalled union negotiations with Whole Life and with Network Inc. have led to strike notices, District 1199 leaders warned that other agencies — which they haven’t named — also still haven’t reached deals on new contracts with the union. That means more strike notices could be issued this fall.

Baril acknowledged the long-term state funding issues involving nonprofit social services but added that the union believes the additional government funding in the new budget should be sufficient for management and labor to agree on new contracts.

“It is time for these agencies to step up and recognize the professionalism, the commitment,” he said.

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