Workers who care for disabled vote to strike May 7

A strike organized by workers who care for the disabled is back on for May 7. 

In March, the worker’s union, SEIU 1199 New England, held a rally at the State Capitol to announce that some 2,500 workers from nine organizations intended to strike on April 18, seeking increased state funding and higher wages.

These employees work for private agencies in group homes and day programs that receive state funding, with the majority of that coming from the state Department of Developmental Services.

State funding to these private agencies has been flat for more than a decade. This has caused low wages, high turnover and lack of affordable health care for workers, the union says.

On April 4, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy wrote a letter to union President David Pickus asking him to postpone the strike until early May “in order to give this process time to produce a positive result, with state budget support.” The next day, the workers voted to postpone.

On Wednesday, they voted to re-issue strike notices to nine private agency providers that operate services in 250 locations statewide.

Office of Policy and Management Secretary Ben Barnes has presented legislators with a proposal that would raise wages to $14.75 per hour and provide a 5 percent raise for workers currently earning more than $14.75, effective Jan. 1, 2019. The proposal would cost the state about $11.4 million in fiscal year 2019 and $22.8 million in subsequent years. The total annual cost is double that, but the federal government would provide a match through Medicaid. 

It would benefit about 18,000 workers, according to the union.

Thirty agencies pay less than $13 per hour, including four that pay less than $11 per hour, according to the union.

Union spokeswoman Jennifer Schneider said the union supports Barnes’ proposal and workers voted to re-issue strike notices because state lawmakers haven’t voted on the proposal.

A bill pending in the legislature — separate from Barnes’s proposal —  also calls for wage increases.

“We’ve reached a crisis of underfunding in the care our state provides people with disabilities and the workers who care for them,” Schneider said. “When privatized group homes and programs are shuttering and workers are forced to work 80 hours a week just to make ends meet, something has to change.”

Barnes said, in a statement, that Wednesday’s union vote was “disheartening.”

“We could have avoided this vote, and we still can avoid a strike,” he said. “The union, the providers, and the administration have together developed a relatively low-cost approach that would not only avoid a strike, but would address the decade-long problem of  low reimbursement to this category of providers, unionized and non-union alike.”

At a Thursday press conference before the House session, House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said the union’s wage requests were a top priority.

“We’ll work it out, again cause we have to,” Ritter said. “This is the must-haves. I am very confident that we’ll get that done.”

According to the union, about 59 percent of this workforce are people of color; and 67 percent, is female.

The nine agencies where workers plan to strike are: Oak Hill School, Journey Found, Mosaic, Alternative Services ASI, Sunrise, New Seasons, New England Residential Services, Whole Life and Network. 

The CT Community Nonprofit Alliance represents eight of these nine agencies. 

“The residents of groups homes where strike notices have been issued need high skilled care, 24-hours a day from dedicated staff that they and their families rely on, and the Alliance will continue advocating for funding increases to avert job actions that would interrupt that care,” said Gian Carl Casa, the alliance’s president and CEO. 

Oak Hill worker Janet Phillip-Smith said in a press release that she’s committed to striking for her clients, co-workers and family. 

“For years the state has not properly funded services for the disabled,” she said. “Programs have closed, clients can’t get the high level of care they deserve and workers are struggling paycheck to paycheck.”

The union is running an online video, advocating for the wage increases (below).

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