Mental health care workers hold strike votes
Middletown — Union workers at Gilead Community Services in Middletown and Sound Community Services in New London — two agencies that serve people with mental health conditions, behavioral health issues and addiction — have started taking strike authorization votes but are hopeful they can come to a contract agreement with their employers.
More than 30 workers with SEIU District 1199 New England rallied outside Gilead mid-day Friday, holding signs and chanting, "What do we want? Contracts! When do we want it? Now!" and "Dignity, respect, more money in our checks!"
Gilead extended a contract that expired in 2019 while Sound has been operating without a contract since 2019. Employees are pushing for higher wages, more affordable health care, and retirement benefits. Union members also are calling for legislators to approve an 8% increase in state funding for mental health services.
"The workers are readying to take the next steps," said Kindra Fontes-May, elected organizer with 1199. She said the union probably wouldn't send strike notices until later this month, and if there were a strike, it would be sometime in April. It was not clear how long the strike authorization voting would take place.
The rally Friday was predominantly Gilead workers, but Kwan Jenkins came to represent Sound, since he works second shift while others were working at the time of the rally. Jenkins is a lead residential recovery specialist for the Bent Crandall Program, an 18-month residential program for people with both mental health and substance abuse diagnoses.
Jenkins, a New London resident who has been at Sound for three years, said he makes $15.87 an hour and other residential employees make $15.37.
"It's hard to make rent, gas prices is going up, everything except our pay," he said.
While Jenkins, 44, is on his wife's health insurance, he's concerned about single employees who make too much to be on HUSKY health insurance through the state but not enough to afford insurance from work. Workers also are looking for a pension or at least a matching 401(k), he said, and negotiations are scheduled to continue next week.
With so many job openings, some wonder: Why not leave and go somewhere else, with higher pay and better benefits? Jenkins said this mindset takes the focus off the individuals they serve, who are impacted by high turnover rates.
"People coming and going in their lives repeats the traumatic experiences they've been through," he said.
Jenkins also loves his work, saying, "We get a chance to inspire and make changes in men and women's lives that most of society don't want to deal with, and some family don't even want to deal with because it can be too much."
Fontes-May said the union has about 80 workers at Sound and 85 at Gilead.
The union said in a media advisory that due to "dangerous staffing shortages and record high turnover," patients at the two agencies "with severe, complex health issues are not getting the specialized care they need, creating unsafe working conditions where (health care) providers are being stalked, threatened and attacked by clients."
Sound and Gilead respond
Gino DeMaio, CEO of Sound Community Services, repeatedly stressed that he can only give to employees what Sound gets from the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.
He said he wants to create a 401(k) match and increase health benefits, but what the union is asking for would cost Sound $1 million a year annualized. He said the 4% increase the state allocated — which Sound recently received — for wages and benefits amounts to less than half that.
"I'm so frustrated, because we're not valued to the degree we should be valued," DeMaio said, "so we can't pass that along to our employees," whom he said he really respects and admires.
He thinks the union's tactic is that if they create a crisis, the state will step in to help out, but he doesn't think Sound is big enough for that to happen.
Sound and 1199 just started negotiating last week, and DeMaio said when they continue next week, "hopefully we can give them the data and they'll be able to really understand the pickle that we're in."
Dan Osborne, CEO of Gilead Community Services, said starting case managers with bachelor's degrees make $16.25 an hour, "which we recognize is not enough, is not what they deserve." He said this isn't about agencies that don't want to give their employees raises, but "about agencies that are held back by state funding contracts, that make us choose between increasing salaries and closing programs."
Osborne said Gilead has received only a 1% increase in state funding over the past 15 years, and Gilead is calling on the legislature and governor to provide more funding.
The agency is engaged in negotiations with 1199 and has offered a compensation increase that would raise wages above the 4% increase that state funding sources have allocated but not yet provided, Osborne said. He said Gilead has offered several different models of funding, such as differentials based on longevity and program type.
"Obviously the picketing today is happening at 222 Main Street Extension, but it really needs to be heard at 210 Capitol Ave. in Hartford," Osborne said. "That's my hope, is that it's something that gets the attention of legislative leaders."
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