State Capitol police arrested 14 demonstrators who laid down Wednesday in the Legislative Office Building to protest challenges in obtaining a stipend for health coverage promised to unionized personal-care attendants.
It was civil disobedience, with an emphasis on civil.
SEIU District 1199NE briefed the police on their members’ plans to obstruct passage in the atrium of the Legislative Office Building and provoke arrest. Police cheerfully obliged them after three ritualized warnings to disperse.
“If you do not do so, you will be arrested and subjected to other police actions,” said Sgt. Timothy Boyle, reading from a script. “This is your first warning. The time is 12:45 p.m.”
At issue is the union’s demand to extend an enrollment period for insurance coverage that the administration of Gov. Ned Lamont negotiated with the union. It expired Feb. 24, with fewer than 100 applications and only 30 approvals.
The union represents 11,000 personal-care attendants who help persons with disabilities to live independently. They are hired independently but provide services covered by Medicaid, which is jointly supported with state and federal funds.
About 1,500 attendants were expected to be eligible for the stipend to obtain insurance, but the union complains that the administration made only “lackluster efforts” to promote the benefits.
Their union negotiated the stipend with the PCA Workforce Council, which represents employers of the personal care attendants. The Lamont administration’s Office of Policy and Management says the union is misinterpreting the collective bargaining agreement.
“The goal of offering this groundbreaking benefit to PCAs under the last CBA was to provide PCAs with financial assistance to purchase health insurance or cover other health related expenses such as out of pocket costs,” Claudio W. Gualtieri, a senior policy advisor at OPM, told the union in an email. “The CBA does not guarantee enrollment numbers, nor does it commit the Council to doing any direct PCA outreach or enrollment assistance.”
Adam Joseph, the governor’s communication director, said the administration went beyond its contractual obligations, working with Access Health CT to create a hotline for PCAs interested in applying for the benefit and establish a special enrollment period. It was publicized by emails and robocalls, he said.
“The Lamont administration remains open to working with SEIU through the proper bargaining channels to achieve a comprehensive agreement on our shared goals of expanding health care coverage and strengthening the PCA workforce,” he said.
On Wednesday, the protestors blamed the administration broadly and the governor specifically, insisting they owe greater consideration to the low-wage workers for laboring through COVID.
“Many of you have gotten sick and have been forced to go without a paycheck or go to work with COVID,” Deidre Murch, an SEIU vice president, told the workers. “Many of you have delayed needed medical care because you don’t have health insurance.”
The attendants got hourly raises of $2 in their 2022 contract, bringing wages to $18.25. The union already has set its sights on what it considers a living wage of $25 in 2025.
The stakes were serious, but the mood was relatively light.
Boyle, the sergeant coordinating police response, mixed easily with the organizers, who collected the names and addresses of those ready to be arrested. Boyle assured them of quick processing and release in a hearing room off the atrium floor.
Sotto voce, he teased an organizer, asking if they would have staged the demonstration there if the notoriously leaky atrium had not been repaired. To the group, he loudly issues a second formal warning at 12:50 p.m.
Less than 10 minutes later, it was time for the final act in the political theater.
“I hereby declare this to be an unlawful assembly,” Boyle said, his body camera blinking red, indicating it was recording. “If you refuse to move, you will be arrested. This is your third and final warning. The time is 12:57 p.m.”
Police officers waited most with flexible cuffs and body cameras. Boyle made the announcement.
“You are all now under arrest,” he said. “Our officers are going to come out and escort you one by one into custody.”
The first stood to be arrested, his arms cuffed behind his back. The second was an older woman, sitting in a folding camp chair. Officers helped her to her feet. She held her hands in front of her chest.
An officer put flex cuffs on her wrists. They were left untightened.