Oak Hill School in Hartford, the largest nonprofit agency serving the developmentally disabled.
Oak Hill School. Group home workers have threatened to strike.

Connecticut’s largest health care workers’ union announced Friday that more than 2,000 group home staffers who serve the developmentally disabled and people suffering from mental illness or drug addiction plan to strike on May 21.

The announcement by SEIU District 1199 New England comes just seven days before 3,400 of its member nursing home workers are set to hit the picket lines — a move that dramatically increases the pressure on state officials to increase public support for health care services.

Union officials say negotiations are continuing and also that a formal strike warning does not commit the bargaining unit to a work stoppage on the notice date.

Citing low wages, poor benefits and inadequate working conditions, the unions announced plans to strike against six nonprofit agencies that collectively operate more than 200 group home sites.

“This fight means that workers are finally going to have a chance to let go of their multiple jobs and have just one job,” said Stephanie Deceus, vice president for the Group Homes division of District 1199. “This fight means that workers who are putting their lives on the line and their families’ are finally going to be able to have access to affordable and quality health insurance. This fight means workers who are forced to work into their senior years finally have a chance to retire with respect and dignity and a pension.”

The largest of the nonprofit agencies that warned of a strike Friday was the Hartford-based Oak Hill, which operates group homes and other services spread across 73 communities.

The other agencies are: Journey Found Inc. of Manchester; Mosaic in Cromwell; Whole Life Inc. of Stratford;  Sunrise Northeast of Hartford; and Network Inc. of Andover.

District 1199 also served strike notices recently to 33 nursing homes, warning them of a potential work stoppage starting May 14. These staffers have been working under contracts that expired March 15, and — like their group home counterparts — complain of low wages, poor benefits and inadequate staffing levels.

All of these longstanding problems, both in nursing facilities and in group homes, have become intolerable since the coronavirus pandemic began, union officials say.

District 1199 President Rob Baril has noted frequently that 24 union members have died and hundreds have gotten sick from the coronavirus. Members simply aren’t willing to risk their lives any more, he says, for jobs that pay between the minimum wage and $15 per hour.

The private, nonprofit agencies — which state government hires to deliver the bulk of state-sponsored social services and are contracting with hundreds of community-based nonprofit agencies to run these programs — have their own financial issues.

The $1.4 billion the state spends annually on these contracts is only about 10% larger than what Connecticut spent nearly two decades ago.

The CT Community Nonprofit Alliance, the state’s largest coalition of nonprofits, estimated last year that the industry’s annual compensation effectively is $461 million below what it was in 2007, after adjusting for inflation.

Gian-Carl Casa, president and CEO of the alliance, said Friday that “community nonprofits can only pay their staff if they are properly funded.”

Casa urged legislators and Gov. Ned Lamont to support a proposal from the General Assembly’s Appropriations Committee to gradually close the gap in funding for private social service agencies over the next seven years.

Top state legislative leaders expressed optimism last week that a nursing home strike could be avoided, noting that state government has a record-setting, $3 billion budget reserve, a nearly $1 billion surplus projected for the current fiscal year and billions of federal coronavirus relief dollars on the way.

The group home situation adds to that challenge.

And state officials also are facing pressure to increase funding for other Medicaid programs, public colleges and universities, and municipal aid.

Keith has spent most of his 31 years as a reporter specializing in state government finances, analyzing such topics as income tax equity, waste in government and the complex funding systems behind Connecticut’s transportation and social services networks. He has been the state finances reporter at CT Mirror since it launched in 2010. Prior to joining CT Mirror Keith was State Capitol bureau chief for The Journal Inquirer of Manchester, a reporter for the Day of New London, and a former contributing writer to The New York Times. Keith is a graduate of and a former journalism instructor at the University of Connecticut.

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