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‘We Are So Invisible’: Unionized Health Workers Protest Lack Of Funding In Lamont’s State Budget

Twice this week, unionized workers have shut down streets around the capitol in protest of Gov. Ned Lamont’s state budget plans.

Most recently, long-term care workers and members of New England Health Care Employees Union District 1199, SEIU staged a picket Thursday afternoon outside the state Office of Policy and Management in Hartford. 

They demanded that the state provide more funding for better wages and benefits that reflect their roles on the front-lines of the pandemic in nursing facilities, home care, and group homes.

“We are so invisible, we are so voiceless to them,” union president Rob Baril said into a bull horn, “that they can’t find money to pay people who have suffered, who have bled, you have comforted the ill and who understand every day what it is to fight to make Black and brown lives matter, to make the lives of the elderly and the sick matter.”

A handful of workers were detained by local and state police for acts of civil disobedience after they entered the lobby of the building and engaged in a sit-in.

Connecticut State Police said in a statement that they arrested about 20 people and charged them with criminal trespass. All were released and are scheduled to be arraigned Monday at Hartford Superior Courthouse.

“It should be noted that this demonstration was peaceful and there were no reports of any injuries of those arrested or the involved [state] troopers,” the statement said.

Long-term care workers and employees of state agencies say the $46 billion, two-year proposal for fiscal years 2022 and 2023 ignores the sacrifices they’ve made during the pandemic while making “incomes below the poverty line” and earning little benefits. 

“We have to fix what’s broken with this system,” Terrell Williams, a personal care assistant from New Haven, told a crowd of picketers outside.

Williams said he travels all over the state to care for his patients. He makes too much to qualify for HUSKY Health, the state’s Medicaid program. But insurance coverage through Access Health CT, the state’s Affordable Care Act marketplace, would cost $300 to $400 a month.

“I can’t afford that,” Williams said, who added he was diagnosed with diabetes about three years ago and needs insulin medication. “We’re not asking them to move mountains, to figure out an equation for rocket science. We’re asking for a basic human right. Help us to get health insurance on the job.”

Credit Nicole Leonard / Connecticut Public Radio
Connecticut Public Radio
Georgia Davis, union delegate, helped lead a march down Capitol Avenue in Hartford Tues., April 6, 2021.

Baril called for a minimum wage of $20 and funding for adequate pensions so that people can retire at a reasonable age.

The Connecticut Mirror reported that the state's rainy day fund stands at a record $3 billion and the Lamont administration projects that the state will end the current fiscal year with an $800 million surplus.

Travon Jackson, a union member who has worked in state mental health services for over a decade, joined other workers in front of the Capitol building earlier this week as they called on Lamont and state officials to put money where it’s due.

“I risk my life every day, me and all the people around us,” he said, “going to work, taking care of patients that we got hired to take care of, diligently, during the pandemic, they don’t want to give us our hero pay. I think it’s wrong.”

Credit Nicole Leonard / Connecticut Public Radio
Connecticut Public Radio
Union protestors marched down Capitol Avenue in Hartford Tues., April 6, 2021.

Union members working in state departments of Developmental Services, Mental Health and Addiction Services, Children and Families, and others gathered Tuesday just two days after the 53rd anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

In the spirit of the civil rights and workers rights leader, a crowd stopped traffic as they marched down Capitol Avenue carrying a large yellow banner that read “Expand Services To Save Lives.”

“We are here today doing what Dr. King did more than 50 years ago,” said Rev. Joan Cooper Burnett, “acknowledging the contradiction that in one of the richest states in the country, there’s growing abandonment in the midst of abundance.”

Burnett is an associate chaplain with the state Department of Correction. She’s also a Local 1199 union member.

“We’re here today still struggling to eradicate systemic racism, still fighting for dignity and human rights, still fighting for basic things like ensuring that a wealthy state like Connecticut gets to appropriate sufficient funding to be able to provide quality services,” she said to a cheering crowd.

Sen. Julie Kushner, who chairs the labor and public employees legislative committee, joined picketers Thursday in their frustrations.

“You heard about the billionaires who got richer. You heard about the state and all the money we have in our rainy day fund. Yet when we go to form a budget, it’s business as usual,” she criticized. “There’s money coming from the federal government. It needs to go into the pockets of the workers.”

The biennial budget proposal currently sits with the Connecticut legislature, which has until early June to make changes and pass a final version.

Nicole Leonard joined Connecticut Public Radio to cover health care after several years of reporting for newspapers. In her native state of New Jersey, she covered medical and behavioral health care, as well as arts and culture, for The Press of Atlantic City. Her work on stories about domestic violence and childhood food insecurity won awards from the New Jersey Press Association.

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