Oak Hill School in Hartford, the largest nonprofit agency serving the developmentally disabled.
Oak Hill School

The state’s largest health care workers’ union has suspended plans to strike at more than 200 group homes Friday, citing progress with state officials in securing more funding for social service programs.

Thursday’s announcement from SEIU District 1199 New England marks the second time a health care-related work stoppage was averted at the last minute. The union on May 13 shelved plans to strike the next day at 26 nursing homes across Connecticut. That suspension also was preceded by a pledge for increased state funding for health care services.

“We look forward to discussions with Gov. [Ned] Lamont about providing a level playing field for workers and their agencies to reach fair contracts,” union President Rob Baril wrote in a statement, praising Lamont for a letter sent this week pledging to find common ground with health care workers. “District 1199’s Long-Term Care Workers’ Bill of Rights calls for the state of Connecticut to lift caregivers out of poverty. This discussion is a step forward that was long overdue.”

More than 2,000 caregivers from group homes serving the developmentally disabled and patients suffering from mental illness or substance abuse issues still technically are at risk of a strike. But the union, citing progress with the state, has moved the work-stoppage deadline from Friday to June 4.

Lamont’s chief of staff, Paul Mounds Jr., and the governor’s budget director, Melissa McCaw, wrote to District 1199 Wednesday, asking them to defer a work stoppage.

“We believe that our constructive dialogue and commitment to a robust package of wage and benefit enhancements for nursing home workers signals our willingness to also seriously consider the health and economic security of direct care workers” in group homes, they wrote.

“The administration will continue to work with all parties to avoid a work-stoppage, and we thank SEIU119 for working constructively with our administration and looking out for the people they care for by delaying this action,” Max Reiss, the governor’s communications director, said Thursday.

The largest of the six facing a potential strike is the Hartford-based Oak Hill School, 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.

Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, spearheaded push to boost funding for nonprofit social service agencies Arielle Levin Becker / CTMirror.org

The union says its members too often face low wages, poor benefits and inadequate working conditions. And since the coronavirus pandemic struck Connecticut in March 2020, these workers also have risked their lives by continuing to care for some of the state’s most vulnerable residents.

“We can’t have loving and dedicated caregivers being asked to pay health insurance premiums of more than $6,000 a month,” Baril added. “Investments in our long-term care system will dramatically change the lives of the workers and people receiving care in our long-term care facilities.”

Technically, the union and its members are negotiating with six private, nonprofit agencies that operate these group homes. The state provides the bulk of its social service programs through the private sector, contracting annually with dozens of community-based nonprofits.

But this industry has its own financial problems.

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.

“The strike threat is a symptom of many years of underfunding and averting it needs to be part of a comprehensive budget solution to this chronic problem,” said Gian-Carl Casa, president and CEO of the alliance.

The union and Casa’s group praised the General Assembly’s Appropriations Committee, which has made a concerted push this year to reverse this longstanding underfunding.

The panel has recommended a seven-year investment plan to close that $461 million gap. That includes an immediate $50 million payment to the industry from this fiscal year’s projected state budget surplus.

The committee also recommended sharing $105 million of the federal pandemic relief funds Connecticut is receiving this year via the American Rescue Plan Act to the nonprofit sector.

“I am focused on making sure that we’re meeting this commitment as we move services from the state workers into the private, nonprofit sector,” said Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, co-chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, who added she believes the legislature as a whole has become more sensitive to the huge array of social services the nonprofit sector helps the state provide.

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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