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'I just am at wit's end': Mother of group home resident grapples with impact of strike

As her husband drove their daughter Kelsey to a day program at The Light House in New London, Diane Fournier sat on the couch of their Noank home, sleep-deprived and emotional as she talked about the upheaval of the past week.

Nonverbal, nonambulatory, and with cerebral palsy and a seizure disorder, 35-year-old Kelsey Fournier has lived in a group home for the past 14 years. But the home where she's been living on Montauk Avenue in New London is currently closed, as its staff are on strike, and Kelsey has been with her parents for the past week.

SEIU District 1199 New England reached agreements before strike deadlines with some group home agencies that serve developmentally disabled people, but not with Sunrise Northeast, which operates 28 group home and day programs across Connecticut. Union workers with Sunrise have been on strike since 6 a.m. last Tuesday. The union said Sunrise serves more than 160 individuals.

Diane and Mark Fournier questioned why Sunrise won't pay its workers more.

But aside from low wages, Diane wants people to know their taxpayer dollars are going to a system that was working, a system that was providing Kelsey some quality of life. She said the state "has done a phenomenal job," and that the women working at the group home are "doing God's work."

"I could sleep at night thinking, if I drop dead tomorrow, everyone knows what's going on," Diane said. Now, she said, "I just can't sleep. I lay down and I worry and I worry and I worry."

The Fourniers, who are in their mid-60s, could have had their daughter relocated elsewhere, as other parents did. But Diane said she didn't want to send Kelsey to a nursing home in Bridgeport or a program in Hartford, where the staff don't know her and her needs.

So, Kelsey was dropped off last Monday night, with diapers and a bin of medications, at the Fourniers' home in Noank. It's only one floor, fortunately, but small and not built to accommodate Kelsey's needs.

"Because she wasn't here for 14 years, we don't have any grab rails. We can't do that in a weekend," Diane said. She didn't previously have a food grinder, which is necessary because Kelsey has to eat all her food "like mashed potatoes."

They took everything out of Mark's office and turned it into a bedroom for Kelsey, pulling down the Murphy bed from the wall. Mark is retired, while Diane modified her work schedule as a physical therapist last week.

She wasn't anticipating Sunrise workers striking, considering District 1199 settled on contracts with other agencies before strike deadlines. And when they did, she thought maybe the strike would last two days.

"If it goes on a couple more weeks, I don't know what I'm going to do," she said. "I just am at wit's end."

'Tragically undervalued' work

Dawn Frey, executive director of Sunrise Northeast, said in an email Monday afternoon, "Sunrise continues to put our individuals first and, despite challenges posed by the strike, has taken thoughtful steps to ensure their continued, quality care. We prepared for the strike and implemented those continuity of care preparations seamlessly."

Sunrise and District 1199 met for several hours of negotiations last Thursday and made some movement on wages. Frey said under Sunrise's offer, employees would receive a 12% wage increase over the 2021 and 2022 fiscal years in some instances.

Frey said Sunrise "has made meaningful offers at the table" and reiterated its commitment to lowering health care costs, but that these offers are contingent on state funding.

The state in June allocated $184 million for wage and benefit increases for group home workers, and Frey said last week that Sunrise had submitted requests to the state for funding the week before.

Kevin Bronson, spokesperson for the Department of Developmental Services, explained Tuesday that the state allocated funds in two areas. The first is funds to increase wages; this didn't require an application, and providers were given an estimate in August of their first-quarter additional amount, with further estimates to come. Bronson said DDS has started to release these funds.

There are also funds for an employee benefit pool, and providers needed to submit requests by Oct. 6, Bronson said. DDS is currently assessing requests and expects to approve them in November.

District 1199 President Rob Baril said there has been some movement on wages, but Sunrise "is just extremely, extremely dug in, particularly around the question of defined benefit pensions, and that's just a real problem."

He said while the CEO of the Florida-based Sunrise makes $325,000, many workers are making under $17 an hour and have had one raise since 2008.

Baril said the union has a $10 million strike and defense fund, and that members are getting up to $350 per week while on strike. He said mid-day Monday there was no date set for future negotiations.

"The work that caregivers do is just tragically undervalued in our society," he said.

Workers are still picketing outside group homes, with six people gathered outside the Montauk Avenue home Monday afternoon — one from that home, one from a Waterford home, and the others from an Old Lyme home. They said the community has been very positive, stopping to talk and to bring coffee and pizza.

"We're doing the jobs nobody wants to do anymore," Elizabeth Esterly said, adding, "You can't replace us with robots."

e.moser@theday.com

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