Courtney Richards stands with a flag at the intersection in front of the Department of Social Services. "We continue to risk serious illness and death on a daily basis so that vulnerable populations in Connecticut can receive critical health care," the protest press release writes. "These services must be properly funded so workers and their families can finally rise above the poverty line in a wealthy state like Connecticut." Yehyun Kim /
Rob Baril of District 1199 New England outlining a settlement and a new strike call.

The union representing low-wage caregivers at private, non-profit group homes for the intellectually disabled in Connecticut struck a deal Wednesday with one owner and issued strike notices for two others.

District 1199 New England, an SEIU affiliate, said the contract settled with Network Inc., which operates 26 group homes in the state, provides unprecedented raises and retirement and health benefits that the union hopes will become an industry template.

The new deal and strike threats come as District 1199 tries to finalize how its members will share in the $184 million the state reserved in June to reward underpaid group home workers who risked their health during the pandemic.

“Some of our members have waited over 15 years to get compensated with wages and benefits that truly reward their hard work,” said Rob Baril, the union president. “This contract sets a high bar for other operators to come to the table and give workers a fair chance to improve our lives.” 

Network and another provider, Whole Life, were facing strikes on Oct. 5. Baril said Whole Life still faces a walkout on Oct. 5 and the union has called strikes at 6 a.m. Oct. 12 against two others, Alternative Services and Sunrise Northeast.

Overall, the union represents 3,000 workers at group homes that are owned by 20 non-profit agencies that heavily rely on Medicaid reimbursements set by the state.

“The state, frankly, did its job. They stepped up to the plate and provided the industry with $184 million,” Baril said. “The agencies have to submit to the state what their costs needs are.”

For non-union homes, that is wholly under the control of the owners. In the union homes, that means negotiating over wages and benefits for work forces that are nearly all female and heavily minority.

“You’ve got employees who have 15 years of experience, 20 years of experience, 25 years of experience, were making 16, 17, 18 dollars an hour,” Baril said.

Whole Life operates 38 homes in Connecticut, while Sunrise has 30 and Alternative Services has 18.

Strike votes are underway at other homes represented by the union.

“A year ago, we began fighting around the concept of a long term care workers bill of rights that would create a minimum standard of $20 an hour over time, access to health insurance for all and retirement security for all,” Baril said.

The contract settled Wednesday provides starting wages of $16.50 this year and $17.25 next, with raises of up to 5% for others based on seniority. It creates a defined benefit retirement plan and significantly cuts employee costs for health insurance. 

“This is a great victory. We have not seen anything like this in my 35 years of working in this field,” said Yvonne Dimmett, a worker at Network.

Jennifer Brown, who works at Sunrise Northeast and at Network, said she was overcome at the prospect of a raise and insurance coverage.

“It’s just overwhelming and appreciative. And in the last 15 years, we haven’t got a raise,” she said. 

The contract also awards Juneteenth as a paid holiday “in recognition of racial justice concerns.” Juneteenth commemorates the end of slavery in America.

CT Community Nonprofit Alliance, a coalition of nonprofit agencies, declined to comment on the settlement or prospect of new strike votes. None of the companies could be reached after the union’s late-afternoon news conference.

The strike vote was unanimous at Alternative Services, which employs about 100, and nearly so at Sunrise Northeast, which employs about 160; Ninety-eight percent voted to strike, Baril said.

Unaffordable health insurance was a major factor, he said.

“Just to give people an understanding of why workers at these agencies are fighting, health insurance really should be, we believe, a human right,” Baril said. “Unfortunately in our society it is a privilege of folks who have the ability to afford it.”

Premiums for health coverage at Sunrise are $1,108 every two weeks for a single person and $2,900 for a family, he said.

“There is not one single worker at Sunrise Northeast that takes the health plan,” Baril said.

Baril said the president of Sunrise Northeast’s, Zachary Wray, makes $325,000 a year. The company is based in Miami and its finances are public. (To be precise, his salary was $300,600, with $24,403 in compensation from related entities.)

“So when we talk about the plight of the working poor, you will find no better example than what workers are confronting at Sunrise Northeast,” Baril said. “This is why workers have decided to take a strike vote.”

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.