SEIU 1199 President Rob Baril, center, has called for better access to testing.
SEIU 1199 President Rob Baril, center, and union members speak during a July rally at the Legislative Office Building.

About 185 members of the state’s largest health care workers’ union were scheduled to hit the picket lines early Tuesday morning as negotiations stalled with a major chain serving the disabled.

Employees at 28 group homes and day programs run by Sunrise Northeast, who’ve been working under a contract that expired in March, ordered the work stoppage after the union and management failed to make sufficient progress in negotiations on a new deal, said Rob Baril, president of SEIU District 1199 New England.

“The workers have decided they’re going to stand up and work for economic justice,” Baril said late Monday afternoon. “Their goal is to be treated like human beings.”

Dawn Frey, executive director for Sunrise Northeast, could not be reached for comment.

Based in Miami, Fla., Sunrise operates more than two dozen group homes and other programs at locations in central and eastern Connecticut serving clients with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

The strike is expected to affect services at programs serving about 160 clients located in: Brooklyn, Columbia, East Hartford, Glastonbury, Hartford, Hebron, Killingly, Lebanon, Manchester, Mansfield, New London, New Milford, Old Lyme, Pomfret, Vernon, Waterford and Enfield.

Tuesday’s work stoppage is the latest move in a long-running struggle involving low-paid health care workers, a financially strapped nonprofit social services industry, and the state — which relies on the private sector to deliver the bulk of its human service programs.

Most of these nonprofits, the union asserts, have long provided their workers — most of whom are minority women — with little more than minimum wage salaries, expensive-yet-low-quality health insurance, and meager retirement benefits, if any.

District 1199 made similar claims this spring against dozens of Connecticut nursing homes, which also receive a major chunk of their funding from government sources in exchange for treating Medicaid and Medicare clients.

Gov. Ned Lamont and the General Assembly averted a nursing home strike in May by committing additional resources for worker compensation in the biennial state budget that began July 1.

They also allocated another $184 million across this fiscal year and next to improve compensation and benefits at private, nonprofit group homes and day program services that contract with the Department of Developmental Disabilities.

But the union has argued throughout much of the summer and fall that nonprofit operators, despite the additional state resources, are struggling to accept new contracts that adequately raise wages and benefits.

Baril did not discuss specifics of the negotiations with Sunrise but said he was particularly disappointed about a lack of progress in negotiating improvements to health care and retirement benefits. Under the workers’ previous contract, health insurance premiums were $2,000 per month for individual coverage and $6,000 per month for family coverage — something Baril called extremely unfair for caregivers who risked their lives caring for the disabled during the worst days of the coronavirus pandemic.

“That is an act of love,” he said, adding that, “frankly, their employer is showing no love.”

“I’m tired. I’m drained. I’ve been at Sunrise for 24 years,” said union member Jennifer Brown, who added she hasn’t had a pay raise in 15 years. “It’s time that they do the right thing. No one at our agency takes insurance because it is not affordable.”

But leaders of the nonprofit social services industry have said the problem is more complex than union leaders have presented it.

The industry suffers from decades of state underfunding, and $184 million extra — spread across two fiscal years — doesn’t reverse all of that damage.

And the CT Community Nonprofit Alliance, the state’s largest coalition of nonprofits, asserts the state still hasn’t defined exactly how much of that $184 million each nonprofit agency will receive and when they will receive it. 

Agencies specifically don’t know how much state aid they will get to fund health care and retirement benefits.

“In general, providers can only pay according to what they’re being paid by the state,” Gian-Carl Casa, president and CEO of the alliance, said Monday.

The union had cited similar problems reaching a deal on benefits in September when it set an Oct. 5 strike deadline against two other group home operators: Network Inc. and Whole Life. Both reached deals in the final weeks before a work stoppage.

The union set an Oct. 12 strike deadline not only for Sunrise but also for a second chain, Alternative Services, but District 1199 canceled that planned work stoppage late Monday. Baril did not discuss Alternative Services directly, but he did say negotiations are continuing on all other outstanding contracts and that “significant progress” had been made in some talks.

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.