About 185 members of the state’s largest healthcare workers union were due to strike picket lines early Tuesday morning as negotiations stalled with a major chain serving people with disabilities.
Employees at 28 group homes and day programs run by Sunrise Northeast, who were working under a contract that expired in March, ordered the work stoppage after union and management failed to do enough progress in negotiations on a new agreement, said Rob Baril. , president of SEIU District 1199 New England.
“The workers decided they were going to stand up and work for economic justice,” Baril said late in the afternoon. “Their goal is to be treated like human beings.
Dawn Frey, executive director of Sunrise Northeast, could not be reached for comment.
Headquartered in Miami, Florida, Sunrise operates more than two dozen group homes and other programs in locations in central and eastern Connecticut, serving clients with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
The strike is expected to affect the services of programs serving around 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 step in a long-standing struggle involving low-paid healthcare workers, a financially strapped nonprofit social service industry and the state – which relies on the private sector to implement most of its social service programs.
Most of these nonprofits, the union says, have long provided their employees – most of whom are minority women – little more than minimum wages, expensive but poor health insurance and meager retirement benefits, if any.
District 1199 made similar claims this spring against dozens of Connecticut nursing homes, which also receive much of their funding from government sources in return for treating Medicaid and Medicare clients.
Governor Ned Lamont and the General Assembly avoided a nursing home strike in May by committing additional resources for workers’ compensation in the state’s biennial budget that began on July 1.
They also allocated an additional $ 184 million in this and next fiscal year to improve compensation and benefits in private non-profit group homes and day program services that contract with the Department of developmental disorders.
But the union argued for much of the summer and fall that nonprofit operators, despite additional state resources, are struggling to accept new contracts that adequately raise wages and social benefits.
Baril did not discuss the details of the negotiations with Sunrise, but said he was particularly disappointed at the lack of progress in negotiating improvements to health care and pension 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 – which Baril said was extremely unfair to caregivers who risked their lives caring for people with disabilities during the worst days of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s an act of love,” he said, adding that “frankly their employer is showing no love.”
“I’m tired. I’m drained. I’ve been with Sunrise for 24 years,” said Jennifer Brown, a union member, who added that she had not had a raise for 15 years. “He is time they do the right thing No one in our agency takes insurance because it is not affordable.
But leaders in the nonprofit social service industry said the problem is more complex than union leaders presented it.
The industry suffers from decades of state underfunding, and an additional $ 184 million – spread over two years – does not heal all of that damage.
And the CT Community Nonprofit Alliance, the state’s largest coalition of nonprofits, says the state has yet to define exactly how much of that $ 184 million each nonprofit will receive and when she receives it.
Agencies are uncertain how much state aid they will receive to fund health care and pension benefits.
“In general, suppliers can only pay according to what they are paid by the state,” Gian-Carl Casa, president and CEO of the alliance, said on Monday.
The union had raised similar issues in reaching a benefits deal in September when it set an Oct. 5 strike deadline for two other group home operators: Network Inc. and Whole Life. The two struck deals in the last few weeks before a work stoppage.
The union has set a strike deadline of October 12 not only for Sunrise but also for a second channel, Alternative Services, but District 1199 called off the scheduled work stoppage on Monday evening. Baril did not discuss alternative services directly, but said negotiations were continuing on all other ongoing contracts and that “significant progress” had been made in some talks.