Oak Hill leadership staff members enjoy a Memorial Day holiday meal with group home members. Oak Hill photo

Memorial Day Weekend is a time of reflection for those who have made the ultimate sacrifice and generally marks the first true weekend of summer and all the promise and excitement that comes with it. The holiday is marked by barbeques and time spent with loved ones.

At Oak Hill, our group homes celebrate the same way. This year, our celebrations looked different. Many familiar faces were missing.

Barry Simon Oak Hill

Our nearly 700 SEIU 1199 members have been on strike since May 24. As we head into week two, our programs have persisted through the difficulties and heartbreak that a strike carries. Our 420 group home residents who look forward to celebrating holidays with their cherished staff could not. The relationships between our group home residents and the staff members who care for them every day are special: our staff guide and support the individuals we serve through all of life’s ups and downs. To the individuals we serve, our dedicated and compassionate staff are confidants and support systems.

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Marybeth Delaney, Program Director, signs into Greg’s hand: “They will be back soon.” Greg is deaf and blind, so Marybeth needs to let him know everything will be ok. Without her staff, Marybeth remains at the group home in Burlington, to ensure that the six gentlemen who have lived there since 1985 receive the care they need. Manny, Greg’s housemate, was still eager to celebrate the holiday, even in the absence of his cherished staff.

Without the direct care staff who provide 24-7 care to our group home residents, Oak Hill has been forced to rely on temporary staffing agencies and our own administrative staff. Nearly half of our administrative staff have been deployed to our group homes and classrooms to make ends meet.

Chris Tennis, senior director of operations, graciously sacrificed time with his own family over the holiday weekend to assist at our home in Windsor. Danny and Dougie, long-time residents of the house, were grateful for the delicious BBQ Chris cooked up. Dougie has done what he can to support his home in the absence of staff. Cleaning is one of his specialties, and their home’s van has never shined so brightly.

I hope what Gov. Ned Lamont, House Speaker Matt Ritter, and Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney will take from these stories is that Oak Hill’s staff and program participants are resilient, but we aren’t made of stone. We need the support we deserve in the biennial budget to provide the best care we can to the individuals we serve. Speaker Ritter has said that he’s “heard” us. Oak Hill has not seen a real cost-of-living adjustment in 17 years and 3% doesn’t scratch the surface.

Our state’s leadership needs to remember that these budgetary decisions have real, human impacts. Greg and Manny don’t have families of their own to celebrate holidays with. Oak Hill is it. Our staff are it. To all the Executive and Legislative Branch leaders who enjoyed the weekend with their own families, I hope they reflect on the sacrifices our staff make in service and in asking for a reasonable pay increase.

As the new week begins, I implore our leadership to do the right thing. They have given significant increases to others and even raised the minimum wage. Why are our staff unworthy of a commensurate increase? Pass a budget that provides a worthy cost-of-living adjustment to the staff who mean everything to Greg, Manny, Danny, and Dougie. It’s their well-being they debate now.

Barry Simon is President and CEO of Oak Hill.