Health care workers rallied at the Capitol for more state funding, one month before their strike began on May 24. Cloe Poisson / Courtesy SEIU 1199

The head of Connecticut’s largest health care workers’ union confirmed Wednesday the organization has begun to wrap its three-week-long strike against six nonprofit agencies that operate group homes and provide other services for clients with developmental disabilities.

Rob Baril, president of New England Health Care Employees Union, SEIU 1199NE, said tentative contracts were reached with the various nonprofits between Friday and early Wednesday morning.

Some of the 1,700 striking workers had returned to the job by Wednesday afternoon, and most should be back at work within a few days as tentative deals are ratified, Baril said.

And while neither the union nor the industry released details of the agreements, both sides confirmed they fell well short of labor’s goal of boosting wages within the next few years to $25 per hour. 

Baril and nonprofit leaders also said the primary stumbling block was inadequate funding for state-sponsored social services in the new budget recently approved by Gov. Ned Lamont and the General Assembly for the next two fiscal years.

The modest increase approved by state officials likely would lead to more strike threats and continued cutbacks to social service program slots over the coming biennium, union and industry leaders predicted.

“We got good contracts — not spectacular, good,” Baril told the CT Mirror. And while union members made “real progress,” it was “far shorter” than their goals, he added.

The strike, which began May 24, affected roughly 1,500 developmentally disabled clients served by six nonprofit agencies: Oak Hill in Hartford; Mosaic residences in Cromwell; Whole Life, Inc. of New London; Network, Inc. in Manchester; and Caring Community of Connecticut and Alternative Services of Connecticut, both based in Colchester.

Most workers had been earning $17 to $18 per hour under their prior contracts, according to the union spokesman, and have been seeking “a pathway to $25/hour minimum wage.”

Most of those prior contracts had expired on March 31. The nearly 700 union members at Oak Hill have a contract that runs through the first quarter of 2025 but exercised a wage and benefit re-opener at the end of March.

The nonprofit network that delivers the overwhelming bulk of state-sponsored social services gets the vast majority of its funding from state and federal sources.

The industry says minimal or no state funding hikes for the past two decades have forced many agencies to cut staff and shrink programs. The CT Community Nonprofit Alliance, a coalition representing about 300 agencies, said earlier this spring that the industry has lost about $480 million in annual payments from the state since 2007, once adjustments for inflation are made.

Though adversaries at the bargaining table, nonprofit and union leaders worked jointly this past legislative session, lobbying state officials for a major correction in state funding — a 9% increase in the fiscal year starting July 1 and another 7% bump in the 2024-25 fiscal year.

What they got from Lamont and the legislature was a 2.5% hike in the first year plus additional funding for wage support — only for nonprofits hired by the Department of Developmental Services — that raised the total increase beyond 3%. That growth was maintained in the second year of the biennium, but there was no additional increase.

Overall that represents $103 million in each year of the two-year budget.

Baril said that’s hard to understand given the record-setting surpluses state government has enjoyed in recent years. 

Connecticut wrapped last fiscal year about $4.3 billion in the black, a whopping cushion equal to nearly one-fifth of the entire General Fund.

The projected surplus for this fiscal year — which ends June 30 — was about $2.95 billion until legislators and Lamont agreed to use $340 million of it to support various programs in the next two fiscal years.

But even after those funds are removed, the remaining surplus is roughly $2.6 billion, which would be the second-largest in state history.

But Lamont has said he and legislators had to weigh many competing priorities, with requests for more aid coming from public colleges and universities, local school districts and municipalities, child care services, health care advocates and others.

“I applaud the workforce and their private provider employers for working together to reach agreement on wages and benefits,” the governor said Wednesday. “These workers provide care to some of the most vulnerable in our state, and we appreciate the services they provide. … These labor agreements will support wage increases that will help with recruitment and retention of essential staff.”

The governor, a fiscally moderate Democrat, insisted legislators also adhere to the state spending cap that tries to keep appropriations from growing faster than personal income or inflation statewide.

With nearly $90 billion in unfunded pension and retiree health care programs and bonded debt, Connecticut ranks as one of the most indebted states, per capita, in the nation, a burden projected to plague state finances well into the 2030s.

By following the spending cap and other fiscal guardrails, Lamont and others note, Connecticut has been able to accelerate pension debt reduction by $5.8 billion since 2020, and expects to use more of this year’s surplus for that same purpose.

But critics counter that rising debt costs have leeched state resources away from social services, health care, education, transportation and other core services for decades, particularly during the 2010s when the state struggled with many budget deficits. And the coronavirus pandemic and high inflation recorded in 2022 have only exacerbated the financial pressure on many services, they say.

Baril said the union won’t stop pushing for wage and benefit increases that will allow caregivers to live above the poverty level, adding that likely will mean more strikes in the coming years — absent a change in state policy.

“That is what is needed to stabilize the workforce in this industry and to provide the kind of care the clients need,” he said.

Barry Simon, who runs Oak Hill, also predicted the worker strikes and joint labor-management protests seen at the Capitol this spring would happen again in the coming biennium.

“We hope not to be back here,” Simon said, “but if nothing changes this is the only avenue we have to get the attention we deserve.”

Gian-Carl Casa, president and CEO of the nonprofit alliance, added that the worker shortage and wage issues are taking a toll on more than union members. Agencies continue to reduce program slots, or close services altogether, to deal with funding issues.

“Programs will be curtailed,” he said. “The state of Connecticut is no longer in that state of fiscal crisis, but nonprofits are.”

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.