Jack Kramer / ctnewsjunkie
Gilbert Morell and his mother Michelle Morell (Jack Kramer / ctnewsjunkie)

HARTFORD, CT — A controversial plan to transition group homes from being run by the Department of Developmental Services (DDS) to private nonprofit providers has been shelved — for now.

At a press conference Friday, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said the plan, which was launched to save money, is “on hold for a period of time.”

Malloy made the remarks while introducing Jordan Scheff, the new DDS Commissioner, to the news media. Malloy said the plan was halted while the administration finishes its negotiations with the state’s labor unions.

The state has “decided not to move forward” with privatizing 40 group homes, though Malloy stressed that could change depending on what kind of cost savings comes out of contract negotiations with all the state unions.

Scheff, who has been serving as acting commissioner of DDS since January, said the decision to delay the transition process was also done to work with families who are under the stress that this type of transition this might cause.

The governor’s statement came an hour after family members of the disabled made passionate pitches to spare state workers from layoffs at a press conference at the Newington Regional Center, which employs about 200 state workers.

Other centers where similar work is done have been shut down in recent years as part of the state’s effort to save money by transitioning group homes to private nonprofits providers.

“My son is autistic, non-verbal, and mentally challenged,” Michelle Morrell of Middletown said.

Her son, Gilbert, 32, lives at the Newington center. “He loves this place. Since he’s been here, he’s gotten involved in Special Olympics. He works out,” Morell said.

“Before he came here it took two or three people to get him under control,” Morell said, adding that she credits the workers at the center for her son’s renewed positive attitude.

“I urge the governor to reconsider balancing the budget on the backs of these people who I don’t call workers but who I call our family,” Morell said.

Also praising the state workers at Newington was Alice Evans, of Stratford. Her daughter, Diane Brown, lives at the center.

“She lived at the Grasso Center until it was closed,” Evans said. “We don’t want people who come and go in Diane’s life.”

The Ella T. Grasso Regional Center in Stratford closed last June, at the same time the Meriden Regional Center closed.

“This place is fabulous,” Evans said. “I don’t want to lose this. They aren’t workers, they are family.”

The union that represents the workers filed a lawsuit against the state last October.

The lawsuit filed by the Connecticut State Employees Association, SEIU Local 2001, and New England Health Care Employees Union District 1199 says that by moving forward with privatizing the services and laying off 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 can 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.

John Quattrocchi, of Rocky Hill, whose son receives services at Newington, said he is a business owner who understands that the state has a severe fiscal crisis and needs to save money.

“But these monies are a pittance compared to the overall budget,” Quattrocchi said, adding that a “society is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable.”

Jack Kramer / ctnewsjunkie

In the meantime, state workers are bracing for what could be more layoffs.

The Malloy administration said it will reduce the state workforce by over 1,100 employees in May “as a first step toward resolving the budget shortfall.” In addition to those filled positions, the administration said it will keep vacant another 120 positions that were scheduled to be filled.

The layoffs are expected to save about $80 million.

When he released his budget in February, Malloy said 4,200 state employees would need to be eliminated in order to achieve the $700 million in labor savings in fiscal year 2018.

The Malloy administration and chief negotiators for the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition have been informally talking since last November, but have been unable to reach a consensus, according to the governor.

“We have legal requirements in contracts with respect to giving notice,” Malloy said last week.

Last year, Malloy laid off about 825 executive branch employees, while the judicial branch laid off about 300. Some of those employees were able to win back their jobs, but it’s unclear exactly how many because of the various bargaining groups and grievances filed. Neither the administration nor the unions can say with any certainty how many won back their jobs.

At the same time, additional layoffs were expected to take place within the Department of Developmental Services at the beginning of the year, but have yet to happen.