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    Wednesday, February 28, 2024

    Group home workers start indefinite strike across Connecticut

    Jorge A. Santana chants while holding a handmade sign as group home workers from various agencies picket outside the office of Whole Life on Broad Street in New London on Wednesday, May 24, 2023. Group home and day program workers with SEIU District 1199NE, the New England Health Care Employees Union, went on an indefinite strike at 6 a.m. Wednesday across Connecticut, seeking pay of $25 an hour. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Jessie Luty joins coworkers as group home workers from various agencies picket outside the office of Whole Life on Broad Street in New London on Wednesday, May 24, 2023. Group home and day program workers with SEIU District 1199NE, the New England Health Care Employees Union, went on an indefinite strike at 6 a.m. Wednesday across Connecticut, seeking pay of $25 an hour. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Coworkers, from left, Ashley Jordan, Eric Gilmore and Jessie Luty wave at a passing car as group home workers from various agencies picket outside the office of Whole Life on Broad Street in New London on Wednesday, May 24, 2023. Group home and day program workers with SEIU District 1199NE, the New England Health Care Employees Union, went on an indefinite strike at 6 a.m. Wednesday across Connecticut, seeking pay of $25 an hour. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    More than 1,700 group home and day program workers employed at six agencies went on an indefinite strike at 6 a.m. Wednesday across Connecticut, seeking a pathway to being paid $25 an hour.

    These aides to people with developmental disabilities are picketing in nine locations statewide, including New London and Norwich.

    They’re unionized with SEIU District 1199NE, the New England Health Care Employees Union, which is not blaming the agencies but Gov. Ned Lamont and legislative leadership.

    The union is looking for an additional $400 million in Medicaid funding in the state budget, and due to a 50% match for group home services, $200 million would come from the federal government.

    House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said Wednesday, “We are not able to get to $200 million.” He said while nonprofits are asking for a 7% increase in funding, he is targeting a 2.5% increase in a budget he expects to get a vote next week. But he said in addition to this line item, there’s additional money for group home workers and American Rescue Plan Act dollars, bringing the total increase above 3%.

    “We are underpaid, we are underappreciated, and we deserve better than what we are getting,” said Amanda Bishop of Gales Ferry, who works at a group home in Norwich and makes $20 an hour. She knows other jobs pay more “but I love what I do. I would be miserable somewhere else.”

    Bishop, 44, has been working for Caring Community for seven years and at group homes and nursing homes for 21 years. She had been going to school for business but started taking care of her sick grandmother, “and I just remember how difficult it was for her, just being in that vulnerable situation, having to help her with bathing and basic hygiene.”

    She works third shift because she and her husband can’t afford a babysitter or day care for their kids, ages 7 and 4. Bishop makes sure consumers ― that’s what Caring Community calls clients ― are safe through the night and cleans the house before setting up morning medications, assisting with showering, and making sure they’re ready for day programs.

    Daisy Nayeem, a director at Caring Community, said during the strike, consumers are being consolidated from 22 locations to 15. She said administrative and supervisory staff are caring for them, and the agency is trying to get temporary staff. She thinks $25 an hour is well-deserved and that better pay would help with staff retention.

    The other agencies that have striking workers are Alternative Services, Mosaic, Network, Oak Hill, and Whole Life. Some of these agencies in the fall of 2021 reached agreements, effective until March 2023, that increased their minimum wage to their current standard of $17.25.

    “You can’t eat praise”

    “We have billions upon billions of dollars, through the rainy day fund and through surplus, in the last year, which is laying around unallocated,” said Rob Baril, president of SEIU 1199NE. “We could easily solve the crisis, in terms of the poverty condition of long-term care workers, not just the group home workers.”

    Ritter thinks a 3% increase is a victory compared to flat-funding in previous years and thinks this budget is sustaintable, and he said there’s other things in the budget people care about, like Education Cost Sharing grants for schools.

    Standing in solidarity with the union at a rally in Hartford on Tuesday, Connecticut AFL-CIO President Ed Hawthorne recalled Lamont and legislators praising essential workers during the pandemic.

    “They have an opportunity to prove that they truly meant what they said when they heaped all this praise on these brave workers that stand behind me,” he said. “Or, they can force these workers to go out on strike and show that all that praise was hollow. You can’t eat praise, a thank you won’t pay medical bills, a sign in the window does not put food on the table.”

    A spokesperson for the governor referred to a statement from the Department of Developmental Services and said it’s on behalf of the administration.

    DDS spokesperson Kevin Bronson said in the statement that DDS and the Department of Public Health “will be conducting residential site monitoring at provider locations to confirm that individuals are receiving the appropriate level of care.”

    “All individuals and families impacted by the strike were contacted last week and continue to be made aware of providers’ plans to manage operations,” Bronson wrote. “While we cannot comment on the status of current contract negotiations between the union and private providers, we are hopeful this matter will be resolved soon.”

    Picketing in New London

    Group home workers from various agencies picketed Wednesday outside the office of Whole Life on Broad Street in New London.

    City resident Vincent Augmon, a certified nursing assistant who has been with Network for four years, said his work is challenging but “so much fun,” and that when you work with a client long enough, “they just become like family. It’s an automatic thing.”

    Augmon, 61, plans to retire soon but said he’s “been in this field long enough to know the workers deserve more money.” He emphasized the multitasking that employees are responsible for such as tracking medication, watching for falls and completing documentation.

    Groton resident Ryan Riske, 30, has been working with Caring Community for more than 11 years and is now assigned to a home in Norwich.

    Riske ― who makes $20.60 an hour and works second shift ― lights up when he talks about taking the residents to parks or to restaurants. But low staffing levels make it harder to get out.

    Riske said about six months ago, before a new person started on third shift, he would get “frozen in” about once a week ― meaning he would end up working for 24 hours if there was nobody to work third shift, and it was “debilitating.” Other workers and union staff talked about this issue at the rally Tuesday.

    “For folks who have kids, for people who just need to get sleep, it is bone-crushing,” Baril said. He added, “Nobody who’s working 80, 90, 100-plus hours a week has it in them to give the kind of care they would give if they were working a 40-hour week.”

    Riske said he hears people say every day that he can work at “Taco Bell or I can go to McDonald’s, and it is true, but it doesn’t change that our field is essential.”

    e.moser@theday.com

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