Christine Stuart photo
State workers and family rally outside Hartford Superior Court (Christine Stuart photo)

Two state unions representing workers at the Department of Developmental Services filed a lawsuit Thursday alleging the state can’t move forward with privatizing group homes without negotiating first with the unions.

The Connecticut State Employees Association, SEIU Local 2001 and New England Health Care Employees Union District 1199 sought an injunction in Hartford Superior Court to stop the privatization from moving forward until negotiations are completed.

Department of Development Services Commission Morna Murray announced in August that the state was moving forward with a plan to convert 30 group homes to private operation by Jan. 1, 2017. The agency also closed two regional centers in Meriden and Stratford. The plan is expected to save the agency $42 million in 2017 and $70 million in 2018.

But for families with sons, daughters, brothers, and sisters in state care, it’s about more than dollars and cents.

Jane Vasseur of Enfield whose brother Billy is cared for by workers at Grey Pond group home in Simsbury said the staff there has become his family.

“We’re grateful that he’s had the same staff with him for so long,” Vasseur said. “We’re grateful that the state of Connecticut pays them a living wage so they can take care of their families while they’re taking care of ours.”

She also said the timing couldn’t be worse. It will be happening around the holidays.

Juanita Dee, a nurse who visits these state-run group homes on a daily basis, said the public is being mislead into believing this is a good plan that will save money because “these conversions are detrimental to the people we serve.”

“Their quality of care will be compromised due to these conversions,” Dee said.

She said the staff at the state-run homes have relationships with their clients and the fact the state pays them a living wage allows those bonds to form.

“These staff earn a living wage, have medical benefits, and retirement provisions,” Dee said. “They have a desire to stay at their position and have a reason to make a daily commitment to the individuals they serve.”

Dee said in contrast the private group homes often don’t have that type of connection because the wage provided to their staff is much lower and benefits are scarce or nonexistent, which leads to high staff turnover.

“This does not allow individuals in a group home to foster communication or develop long lasting, trusting relationships,” Dee said.

Christine Stuart photo
David Pickus, president of SEIU 1199 NE (Christine Stuart photo)

David Pickus, president of SEIU 1199 New England, represents workers in both the public and the private sector. He said workers in the private sector, even those represented by a union, are still fighting to get to $15 an hour, while most entry-level state jobs begin at $18 an hour.

The organization, which represents the private, nonprofit community providers, disagrees with the union’s assessment of the situation.

“The high quality of care already being delivered by private providers to thousands of individuals with some of the most challenging and complex needs is equal, if not superior, to state facilities,” Gian-Carl Casa, president and CEO of the CT Community Nonprofit Alliance, said. “And the lower cost of private care could allow the state to provide services for many more families who are languishing on waiting lists.”

Christine Stuart photo
Dolores Foreman, who worked at Brooks Street in Hamden before it was closed. She said the last client was moved and the facility is now closed. (Christine Stuart photo)

He said he understands change is difficult, but for the union to suggest that only state employees can deliver quality care is “simply false, and ignores the fact that private providers already deliver care to the majority of individuals receiving state-supported services.”

In Connecticut 94 percent of the 16,742 individuals with intellectual disabilities DDS supports receive services from community providers, with fewer than 1,000 individuals receiving care in state-run homes and 15,000 receiving care in nonprofit homes.

But caregivers and the unions argued it’s not fair to put the clients, who will suffer, in the middle. That’s why they’re asking the court to tell DDS to stop moving forward with a plan until the unions can negotiate with the administration.

Pickus said the contract his employees have with the state expired on June 30, but has been extended. That contract, according to Pickus, doesn’t allow for these services to be unilaterally privatized.

The lawsuit says that by moving forward with privatizing the services and layoff union members constitutes a “prohibited practice.” The union already filed a “prohibited practice” complaint with the state Board of Labor Relations and is seeking a court injunction to stop the privatization from moving forward until the board and resolve the matter.

“Laying off bargaining unit members and contracting out services threatens to irreversibly eliminate DDS’ capacity to deliver those services because the work will have been wholly privatized and the individuals the employees care for will have settled into new homes and/or adapted to new caretakers,” the lawsuit states.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration said it needs to move forward with a transition that recognizes the changing economic reality.

“We deeply respect collective bargaining and are confident that our actions are not only warranted, but lawful and proper,” Kelly Donnelly, a spokeswoman for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, said.