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    Thursday, August 18, 2022

    Group home workers with Sunrise have been on strike for a month

    SEIU District 1199 workers Yvette Kelly and John Sidlinger hold the picket line Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021, in front of the Sunrise Northeast group home on Montauk Avenue in New London as the strike against the company goes into its second month. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

    Unionized group home employees working for Sunrise have now been on strike for four weeks. SEIU District 1199 New England hasn't met with the company for negotiations since Oct. 14, and the parties are now using a federal mediator.

    District 1199 represents about 150 members at Sunrise, and some workers have noted they're making $17.54 an hour regardless of whether they've been there for 10 years or 26.

    Some people have voiced confusion as to how District 1199 was able to reach agreements with other group home agencies — averting the strikes that had been threatened — but not Sunrise.

    Dawn Frey, executive director of Sunrise Northeast, said in an email Wednesday, "We have asked to negotiate many times. The Union has failed to respond and appears to have no intent of coming back to the negotiating table."

    Asked about the holdup in negotiations, District 1199 Vice President Jesse Martin said about the Florida-based company, "We're busy letting the community know what Sunrise is up to in this state. Their priority is not the state of Connecticut; it's not Connecticut citizens."

    He added that the union has been "actively supporting the guardians" of Sunrise clients and reporting their issues to the state Department of Developmental Services, and the process of using a federal mediator "takes some time."

    "We continue to work with the individuals, families, and staff all impacted by the strike, and to keep public health and safety as our utmost priority," DDS spokesperson Kevin Bronson said in an email. He said DDS can't comment on the status of current contract negotiations.

    In June, the state allocated $184 million for wage and benefit increases for group home workers; providers needed to submit requests to the state to access the employee benefit pool but wage increases didn't require an application.

    Bronson said Wednesday that DDS is reviewing requests for benefit enhancement. He said funding was provided for a 3% increase to employees above a set minimum wage of $16.50 in the current fiscal year and $17.25 next year.

    Frey shared with The Day a Nov. 5 letter written to employees, saying that under Sunrise's proposal, wage increases over the next two years would be 6% for people with one to five years of experience, 8% for those with five to 10 years, 10% for employees with 10 to 15 years, and 12% for employees who have worked at Sunrise for more than 15 years.

    She also said Sunrise has committed to lowering employees' health care premiums by "over 80% and remains committed to reducing costs further, contingent upon state funds, which we don't yet have any details on."

    Martin said Sunrise currently has monthly premiums of $6,000 for family health insurance coverage, but the proposal to knock it down to $1,200 a month is still unaffordable.

    "The vast majority of our membership get health insurance either through other insurance or through the exchange, on the state dime," he said. "They get HUSKY."

    One of nine Sunrise workers picketing outside the Montauk Avenue group home in New London mid-day Wednesday, John Sidlinger talked about a guaranteed pension and better health insurance as the big issues, and said the raises Sunrise has talked about don't even cover inflation.

    "I got like 30 more years of work or whatever, and I don't want to be worried about eating cat food," said Sidlinger, 38.

    Martin said other agencies are "desperate for staff" and have been actively trying to recruit strikers. He said they have been "partially successful" but Sunrise workers love their clients and are dedicated to going back to work.

    District 1199 President Rob Baril said last month that members on strike are getting up to $350 a week out of the union's $10 million strike and defense fund. Union officials didn't say Wednesday how much has been paid out to date.

    The union announced that workers will consolidate their strike lines at Sunrise Inc. in Hartford for a rally Thursday at 11 a.m., joined by newly elected Connecticut AFL-CIO leaders.

    Families feel the strain

    As a result of the strike, Oakdale resident Sonya Gurnee has had her son Bobby home with her for the past month. Bobby, 37, is quadriplegic and has cerebral palsy.

    Bobby had been at the Sunrise group home in Old Lyme for the past three years and in a group home in general since he was 23, a decision Gurnee said she and her husband made as they thought about getting older.

    "That was probably the hardest thing I ever had to do," said Gurnee, now in her late 60s.

    She said the other residents of the Old Lyme facility went to a nursing home in Bridgeport as a result of the strike, but she didn't want to send her son there.

    "They don't know Bobby," she said. "They don't know how to care for him, they don't know all the medications he needs. He needs every aspect of life to be helped with — his eating, his drinking, his cleaning."

    So she took Bobby home, which she said has been very hard. Her two older children have been helping out, but they have jobs and families, and she asked DDS for a grant to pay someone to help. Bobby was able to return to his day program last week.

    Gurnee said it's hard for her son to understand what a strike means; he asks, "Why don't they want to work with me anymore, Mom? Why is my house closed?"

    Like Gurnee, Noank resident Diane Fournier is in her 60s and didn't want to put her child in a nursing home. But unlike Gurnee, Fournier is still working and her home isn't handicapped-accessible.

    Fournier talked to The Day three weeks ago about the difficulties of caring for her daughter Kelsey at home, and said this week she got Kelsey a temporary placement at another agency's group home in Waterford. Fournier said her daughter is "in a perfect place" but can only stay there for a few weeks total, as her spot already had been promised to someone else.

    "I've tried to be positive," Fournier said. "I've tried to do the 'bees come to honey more than vinegar.' I don't know what else to say or do."

    e.moser@theday.com

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