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    Friday, August 12, 2022

    Sound Community Services workers picket ahead of planned 3-day strike next week

    Union 199NE workers participate in an informational picket Tuesday, April 19, 2022, outside Sound Community Services on Montauk Avenue in New London. The union is set to hold a three-day strike starting April 24. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

    New London — Unionized workers with Sound Community Services, a nonprofit serving people facing mental and behavioral health conditions and addiction, picketed outside Sound on Tuesday afternoon ahead of a planned three-day strike set to begin at 6 a.m. Sunday.

    Sound employees with SEIU District 1199 New England began strike authorization votes last month, and organizer Kindra Fontes-May said 100% of those voting were in favor. She said most of the 73-member bargaining unit voted, and that it is up to the workers whether they would want to extend the strike.

    The strike would be held outside Sound's main office at 21 Montauk Ave., where the picket line was held Tuesday, she said.

    Workers are pushing for wage increases, more affordable health insurance, a retirement contribution from Sound and better staffing conditions, as workers are being threatened and attacked by clients.

    Sound CEO Gino DeMaio said for the strike, "we have a full schedule of experienced, nonunion workers, managers, who have all agreed to get onboard, and we've taken shifts" and "there will be no effect on any of the programs," but he hopes it doesn't come to that.

    "I'm disappointed that this is actually happening," he said. "I think that they really should be going to the state legislature and talking to them."

    The union is calling on the state to approve an additional 8% increase in funding for the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services to help fund their demands. The state previously allocated a 4% increase in funds for wages and benefits.

    "Over the last several decades, state leaders have outsourced public mental health work to nonprofits like Gilead and Sound with the pretext of cutting costs," District 1199 President Rob Baril in a news release. "These services rely on state funding, which has been stagnant for years."

    Gilead Community Services in Middletown has a strike deadline of May 5 at 6 a.m.

    Begging to feel supported

    Jamese "Jay" Tatum said she started at Sound in 2014 as a recovery specialist and was promoted to residential case manager, making $17.82 an hour. She said she had to fight just to get a 25-cent raise when she was promoted.

    She said she loves what she does and the people she serves, but she also has faced physical and verbal abuse — such as a client pushing her — and said she doesn't feel supported.

    "We deserve more fairness," said Tatum, 33. "Some damn respect. And we want to feel supported. That's my biggest thing, I want to feel supported."

    Tatum, who has a 9-month-old baby who is staying home with her significant other, said she's "living check to check."

    Case manager Tyischa McIntear, who has been in the health care field for 10 years and started working at Sound two years ago, said she decided to work at Sound because she's from New London and heard great things about the agency's work. She makes $17.13 an hour.

    "I had no idea when I got hired that the conditions would be as bad as they were, as far as not giving us affordable health care, not compensating us for what we're worth," McIntear said. Both she and Tatum get their health insurance through the state; Tatum said she can't afford to pay the $500 a month it would cost to get insurance through her employer.

    McIntear, 35, said as a single mom of a 15-year-old son, she has to cut corners on food and figure out which bills to pay when.

    "If it weren't for my family, I would be one of Sound's persons served," she said, adding that people she helps make more money than she does.

    District 1199 and Sound most recently met for negotiations last week. DeMaio said Sound sent an offer Friday that would increase wages by $1.78 an hour but hasn't heard back from the union. Fontes-May said with the latest offer, Sound increased wages by 15 cents but withdrew a previous offer for retirement contributions, and the union wants to see more movement on wages.

    At the picket Tuesday, several chants called out DeMaio by name. According to Sound's Form 990 for the fiscal year ending June 2020, which ProPublica posted through its Nonprofit Explorer, DeMaio's reportable compensation from Sound was $232,727. After the chief medical officer and chief financial officer, the next five highest-compensated employees made between $168,353 and $99,568. The total number of people employed in 2019 was 178.

    "I've picked this agency up from near bankruptcy. I don't feel bad about the rate I make because I've been around a long time, but I've always advocated for the employees to get more," DeMaio said.

    He criticized the proposed deal with the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition, saying "if this deal goes through with state employees, it's going to put even greater disparity between the nonprofits" and state workers. He concluded, "We only have what the state gave us, and I don't really know where any more dollars can come from."

    e.moser@theday.com

    Tobias Atwater, a recovery specialist, chants slogans with fellow members of the Union 1199NE participating in an informational picket line Tuesday, April 19, 2022, while he encourages people driving by on Montauk Avenue to honk their horns, outside Sound Community Services in New London. The union is set to hold a three-day strike starting April 24. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
    Union 199NE workers participate in an informational picket Tuesday, April 19, 2022, outside Sound Community Services on Montauk Avenue in New London. The union is set to hold a three-day strike starting April 24. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
    Tobias Atwater, a recovery specialist, encourages people driving by on Montauk Avenue to honk their horns as they pass members of the Union 1199NE chanting slogans Tuesday, April 19, 2022, while participating in an informational picket line outside Sound Community Services in New London. The union is set to hold a three-day strike starting April 24. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

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