With 1,200 union workers set to strike Friday at four non-profit agencies that care mainly for people with intellectual disabilities, Office of Policy and Management Secretary Robert Genuario asked New England Health Care Union District 1199’s leadership to hold off for two weeks so he can mediate. The union agreed. Can the governor’s budget czar bring anything to the table besides more money?
At Oak Hill School in Hartford- a private, non-profit facility for the blind and people with multiple disabilities- the state pays 95 percent of its $70 million operating budget, said Patrick Johnson, the school’s president. With that large a stake, one might assume the state would play a central role in ongoing contract negotiations between management and District 1199, who can’t agree on wage schedules or health insurance costs for the next two years. The union argues its members are woefully underpaid, especially compared to state workers doing similar tasks. At Oak Hill, for example, Chernoff said workers have received no raises at all for the past three years.But Johnson counters that his institution is hampered by flat funding from the state, which doesn’t keep up with the cost of inflation. Until yesterday, the state played no part in this drama, and the two sides hurtled toward a bitter strike. That’s when Genuario told the union he would step in to mediate. Does Genuario’s move mean more state money is in the offing for these private providers, in order to avoid a strike?“It does not carry with it that implication,” Genuario said, adding that he will try to understand the two sides’ issues before commenting on it. However, Genuario did stress that these private providers all received a four percent increase in state funding this year, part of the proceeds from a nursing home user fee. For an institution like Oak Hill, that translated to roughly $2.66 million more a year. Both District 1199 spokeswoman Deborah Chernoff and Johnson say they welcome Genuario’s involvement, but Johnson said he is unsure of its effect. “I don’t know what he has in mind. I’m anxious to see,” Johnson said.