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Health Care

‘Agencies Need To Step Up’: Group Home Workers Vote To Strike As Union Contract Negotiations Stall

Group home workers rally
Nicole Leonard
/
Connecticut Public Radio
Union group home workers with District 1199 SEIU rally in Hartford on June 2, 2021. They’re prepared to strike next month if there is no movement from management on their demands.

More than 600 group home union workers at two Connecticut nonprofit agencies have voted to strike next month as they seek new contracts with employers.

Specifically, union members and leaders accused the agencies of two things: avoiding bargaining meetings and a reluctance to secure state and federal funding that has been set aside for improvements to the industry and its workforce.

“This is a time where essential workers have made incredible sacrifices, unspeakable sacrifices, to be able to take care of folks who are vulnerable,” said Rob Baril, president of SEIU District 1199 New England. “And these agencies need to step up and value those workers, not with platitudes but with dollars.”

Strike notices were delivered Tuesday morning at Whole Life Inc. and Network Inc., two nonprofit agencies that contract with the state to serve people with physical, intellectual and developmental disabilities at nearly 70 locations and programs throughout Connecticut.

Employees at both agencies have been working without new contracts for months and are prepared to walk off the job Oct. 5 if there is no movement on their demands.

The industry avoided a larger group home strike in the spring when union members put pressure on the state and Gov. Ned Lamont to commit more funding in the state budget for workers who served on the front lines of the pandemic.

The state agreed in June to allocate $184 million over two years for improvements in the industry, with a smaller subset of that money specifically designated for wage increases, retirement payments and other benefits.

A portion of the money came from federal pandemic relief funds.

But it’s been months since the legislature passed the budget, and Stephanie Deceus, union vice president of group homes, said the funding still hasn’t made its way to workers on the ground in the form of new contracts.

“We’ve fought to win this funding, and we deserve it right now,” she said. “We don’t want to be piecemealed. We want a comprehensive package that includes all of the funding that we fought for.”

Susan Pearson, executive director at Network, said agencies are grateful that the state has set aside money this year for nonprofits, adding that it’s been a while since organizations could award workers with deserved raises.

“Our people went in, put their lives on the line every day,” she said. “Even in the beginning, we had no PPE. And they went in and cared for [clients].”

But Pearson said securing funding from the state has been a detailed process. Funds for wage increases have been released, but she said dollars are not yet available to support the related automatic increases in pension payments, which are tied to a worker’s hourly earnings or salary.

Other employee benefits are also linked to money that has not been released. Pearson said agencies have a deadline of Oct. 6 to file all paperwork for state funding — one day after the union’s strike date.

“We don’t have the numbers to go to negotiation yet with anything solid,” she said.

But workers like Sherry Delorme are tired of waiting. She’s an employee at Whole Life with 18 years of experience in the industry.

“I’m working between 116 to 140 hours every two weeks just so I can pay for my health insurance and the stuff I need for my kids,” she said.

Union leadership estimated that the majority of group home workers make an average of about $14 to $15 an hour.

Whole Life and Network are not in a unique situation. Union officials say bargaining units at other unspecified group home agencies in Connecticut are also finding it difficult to get new contracts and funding. They indicated that more strike votes are possible in the near future.

“We are going to hold every employer accountable in this industry to getting contracts that lift workers out of poverty and treat the participants with dignity,” said Jesse Martin, union vice president.

Pearson said Network intends to pursue all state funding that might be available to the organization and its workers. In the meantime, the nonprofit has begun preparing for a potential strike by contacting nearby nursing homes for space availability.

“The temp agencies don’t have the [replacement] staff” needed to continue all programming and round-the-clock care for clients, Pearson said. “We know we won’t be able to care for everyone.”

Contract negotiations will continue in the following weeks. Pearson said she hopes the union and the nonprofit can come to an agreement to avoid a strike that could displace vulnerable and some medically fragile people.

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