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May 17, 2023

Union to strike at group homes serving 1,500 disabled clients

CLOE POISSON / COURTESY SEIU 1199 Health care workers with the SEIU 1199 New England held a rally at the state Capitol in Hartford, demanding fully funded contracts. April 28, 2022.

Connecticut’s largest health care workers union plans to strike May 24 against six nonprofit agencies that operate group homes that collectively serve nearly 1,500 developmentally disabled clients.

More than 1,700 members of New England Health Care Employees Union, SEIU 1199NE, are set to strike May 24 against nonprofits hired by the state Department of Developmental Services, the union announced Tuesday.

The move also comes as legislative leaders and Gov. Ned Lamont are in the final stages of negotiating a new state budget for the next two fiscal years. Connecticut primarily contracts with the private sector to deliver the bulk of state-sponsored social services, not only for clients with developmental disabilities but also for children and adults struggling with mental illness and addiction, and also to provide counseling and job training for prison inmates.

The agencies potentially affected by the planned May 24 strike include 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.

Though the strike primarily would affect group home services, it also would impact some day-school programs for disabled clients.

Most of the union members involved in the strike have been working under contracts that expired March 31. The nearly 700 union members at Oak Hill have a contract that runs through the first quarter of 2025 but exercised a wage and benefit re-opener this past March 31, according to union spokesman Pedro Zayas.

The union issued a statement Tuesday indicating the work stoppage is planned because workers are seeking “living wages, affordable health insurance” and better retirement benefits.

“Connecticut must end poverty for all caregivers,” union President Rob Baril said. “Group home workers keep showing up to work because they love caring for others, because they believe that individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities should have access to the opportunities and supports that let all of us enjoy a meaningful life.”

The jobs involved include direct support and direct care staff, dietary workers, maintenance staff, program aides, job coaches, assistant managers, assistant program coordinators, residential day program workers, assistant teachers, behavior paraprofessionals and some licensed practical nurses.

Baril and other union leaders have noted on several occasions that many 1199 members lost their lives, became ill or brought infections home to their families during the early stages of the coronavirus in 2020 and 2021 — all while caring for Connecticut’s elderly and disabled in nursing homes, group homes and through at-home care services. 

“Even after all these workers and families went through during the pandemic, essential workers and caregivers in Connecticut are still struggling with poverty,” Baril added.

Though the Baril did not provide specifics on the wages sought in negotiations, the union statement says workers are seeking “a pathway to $25/hour minimum wage.” Most now currently earn in the range of $17 to $18 per hour, according to the union.

A spokesman for the Department of Developmental Services, Kevin Bronson, said “DDS is working with providers, families and staff to ensure the health and safety of the individuals we support. Providers continue to keep the department apprised of communications with those individuals and families who may be affected throughout the process.”

Bronson added that “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.”

The CT Community Nonprofit Alliance, a coalition of roughly 300 nonprofit agencies, says annual payments from the state haven’t kept pace with the Consumer Price Index for more than a decade, and the industry, collectively, is now receiving $480 million per year below 2007 levels once payments are adjusted for inflation.

Gian-Carl Casa, president and CEO of the alliance, said Tuesday that what’s important “is a sustainable system that provides help for people every day. We hope that help isn’t interrupted by a strike, but it’s clear [state] funding across the sector is important. The workforce needs to be paid in order to come to work. And if the workforce isn’t there, services won’t be there for the people who need them.”

“I urgently call on legislative leadership and the governor to authorize a reasonable cost-of-living adjustment to Oak Hill’s and all non-profit state contracts,” said Barry Simon, CEO of Oak Hill. “If union terms are not met, there will be severe quality-of-life implications for the individuals we serve. A strike of any length will have debilitating mental health and treatment impacts for the individuals who call Oak Hill home. Can you imagine having to leave your home of 30 years?” 

The legislature’s Appropriations Committee, which is controlled by Democrats, recommended a 1% rate hike next fiscal year worth about $20 million. Republican caucuses have endorsed a 2.5% hike worth about $50 million. 

Lamont originally proposed no increase for nonprofits when he offered his budget proposal in February for the coming biennium but since has said he wants to find more resources for this group.

The union estimates Connecticut’s group home service providers would need an additional $400 million annually to be able to afford the raises 1199 is seeking. But it also notes that if the state provides agencies with these added resources, roughly half of the cost would be covered by federal Medicaid reimbursements.

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