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Disappointed about state budget, CT group home workers say more funding is needed

As of next month Janet Johnson will have worked in this industry for 38 years with minimal increases in pay from the starting pay of $17 an hour. "After a lifetime of doing this I should be making more than $23 an hour."
Tyler Russell
Connecticut Public
As of next month, Janet Johnson will have worked in the group home industry for 38 years with minimal increases in pay from a starting pay of $17 an hour. "After a lifetime of doing this, I should be making more than $23 an hour."

After Connecticut lawmakers approved a $51 billion budget this week, caregivers for people with developmental disabilities and older adults continued to push for better wages.

Lawmakers approved about $125 million in state funds for Medicaid home and day programs; caregivers had been hoping for $200 million.

Caregivers deserve more, said Rob Baril, president of SEIU 1199 New England.

"The additional Medicaid funding of $125 million to $150 million for this sector of workers is a start, yet far short of what caregivers need," Baril said in a statement. "With more than a decade of austerity budgets, Medicaid services for individuals with disabilities were underfunded by hundreds of millions of dollars since 2008. This is a clear illustration that the state budget is crushing publicly funded workers."

The budget's passage comes as caregivers have been on strike in recent weeks. SEIU 1199 New England wants to create a pathway to a minimum wage of $25 an hour.

Pedro Zayas is with SEIU 1199 New Englandand said pushing the budget debate to the end of the session ended up disenfranchising essential workers of color, which make up many of the union’s members. Union leaders say many of their members are from Puerto Rico, Jamaica and Haiti.

"So, no doubt there is a lot about discrimination based on gender discrimination, based on race,” Zayas said. “And the only reason why we feel the workers don't get the respect they deserve is because of their ... demographics.”

Janet Johnson has been a group home worker for 38 years. Johnson said the budget approved by lawmakers reflects a wider culture that undervalues their work.

"In this field, there are a lot of women, primarily women of color, that are definitely underpaid, not appreciated, and ignored, like we are invisible,” Johnson said.

Angie Cooper of Bridgeport has been working in the field for 23 years. She said Connecticut still has a long way to go to end discrimination, particularly for women of color, like her, who make up so many essential workers.

"They don't really care about the lower class,” Cooper said. “There's no equality, you know? If they had a lot of money left over, and we were doing the worst work, but we enjoy it, and we do it with love. Why do you want to spread it to other agencies who already have the money?”

Zayas said everyday caregivers are exposed to severe behavioral problems and infectious diseases from their clients, but they still do the work because they care.

Janet Philips-Smith, a group home worker for 23 years, agrees.

"A lot of women, minority women, and women, in general, have a passion for caring,” Phillips-Smith said. “That's why probably a lot of us are on this bill,” she said. “We care about other human beings, and we do a good job at it."

Zayas said she wants justice for the workers.

"At this point, it is about justice for the women who do these jobs, for the men who do the jobs, for the Black people, the Latinos, the white folks who are working-class folks who do these jobs, and for the elderly and for the people with disabilities that we care for,” Zayas said.

Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat, has praised the budget agreement reached with state lawmakers.

While the budget isn't all she hoped for, Cooper is eager for Lamont to sign it.

"Can you please sign that bill for the workers for 1199? I really would appreciate that. We really need your support as we voted you in,” Cooper said. “The union voted for you, and we need you to sign that bill ASAP."

Maricarmen Cajahuaringa is a journalist with extensive experience in Latino communities' politics, social issues, and culture. She founded Boceto Media, a digital Spanish-language newspaper based in Connecticut. Maricarmen holds a Bachelor's in Social Work from Springfield College, and a Master's in Journalism and Media Production from Sacred Heart University. As a reporter for Connecticut Public, she is dedicated to delivering accurate and informative coverage of the Hispanic/Latino population in the region. Maricarmen is an experienced and passionate journalist who strives to bring a voice to the stories of her community.

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