Community nonprofits caring for Connecticut’s developmentally disabled are caught in an awkward position as they face an Oct. 5 strike deadline from union caregivers on staff.
Gov. Ned Lamont and the legislature reserved $184 million way back in June to reward the group home workers who risked their lives caring for the disabled during the coronavirus pandemic.
But, entering this week the state still hadn’t defined exactly how much of that $184 million each nonprofit agency will receive and when they will receive it. Contractually guaranteeing workers more — without knowing if enough funds are there to cover the bill — is a dicey proposition at best, industry leaders say.
Meanwhile, the state’s largest healthcare workers union, whose members at two group homes chains have been working under expired contracts since March, say labor has waited long enough. Earlier this week, SEIU District 1199 New England leadership set an Oct. 5 strike deadline involving staff at group homes and day programs run by Whole Life Inc. of New London and Network Inc. of Andover. And they warned the work stoppage could expand to include more nonprofit agencies serving the developmentally disabled later this fall.
“Nonprofits are concerned about their employees, and they always have,” said Gian-Carl Casa, president and CEO of the CT Community Nonprofit Alliance, the state’s largest coalition of nonprofit agencies. But wages and benefits are “far from the only cost nonprofits have,” Casa said, adding that — at least so far in the fiscal year that began July 1 — “they do not have the information they need in order to [guarantee] benefits for their employees.”
Here’s what the nonprofits do know.
The Lamont and the legislature in June committed $280 million in total funding increases — to be spread across this fiscal year and next — for the private, community-based agencies the state uses to deliver the bulk of its social services.
Out of that, $184 million was earmarked for wage and benefit enhancements for those serving the developmentally disabled. But the nonprofit sector also delivers services to patients with mental illness and addiction issues, abused children, teens in crisis and prison inmates re-entering society.
As of Wednesday, Casa said, specific agencies still don’t know precisely how the full $280 million is being divvied up. More importantly, individual nonprofits serving the developmentally disabled don’t know how much of the $184 million they each will receive.
That’s not a huge problem when it comes to wage negotiations. Lamont and lawmakers directed all nonprofits to raise hourly pay for caregivers to at least $16.50 this fiscal year and $17.25 by 2022-23.
But when it comes to health care and retirement benefit enhancements, state officials set no specific benchmarks.
District 1199 officials said Monday that shouldn’t be an issue.
In a similar situation, nursing home owners, state officials and the union averted a potential strike in mid-May, and some new contracts were settled before individual homes had full details about their specific allocations, union officials said.
Rob Baril, president of District 1199, added during a press conference Monday that after decades of low pay and a pandemic that cost many workers their health — and some their lives — the union is done waiting.
Though union leaders didn’t disclose all of their demands from negotiations, Baril said, “Those are really, frankly, the minimum standards that people need to live,” he said. “Those are just the things that people need to be able to feed their children.”
But Casa said nonprofits have done their best for years to prioritize patients and staff when faced time and again with disappointing help from the state.
For many agencies, that has meant deferring building maintenance, vehicle and equipment purchases and information technology upgrades. It’s also meant accumulating debt.
“We do support our hard-working employees, and we do want to provide a living wage with good benefits,” said Susan Pearson, executive director of Network Inc.
An administrator for Whole Life Inc. could not be reached for comment.
Lamont’s budget director, Melissa McCaw, wrote in a statement this week that state officials “continue to expect that both parties will work in good faith to implement the portions of the agreement that can be immediately acted upon, such as the wage package, and continue the process on the benefits enhancement pool. The State has given both sides a process, timeline, tools and resources to successfully negotiate an agreement. Now, it is time for both parties to complete the process and ensure swift implementation for the benefit of the employees and the individuals they serve.”
But the budget office did not comment on whether it has provided all nonprofits with full details on their respective available state funding.
Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, co-chairwoman of the legislature’s Appropriations Committee, said McCaw did confirm that with her, though, during a conversation on Friday.
But that dynamic also is complicated, this time by the pandemic.
Lamont and legislators cobbled together resources from the nonprofits from three sources: last fiscal year’s state budget surplus, the General Fund for the new, two-year state budget, and massive, multi-purpose grants sent by Congress to Connecticut through the American Rescue Plan Act.
And those ARPA dollars aren’t managed exclusively by the Lamont administration. The governor and legislature continue to jointly apportion those dollars.
Osten said Wednesday that while she believes the Lamont administration already should have informed nonprofits of their specific funding for all sources, the Appropriations Committee is working with McCaw’s office this week to attempt to resolve any outstanding questions.