Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie
Elaine Brown and Rich Casolla at SEIU 1199’s Hartford headquarters (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

HARTFORD, CT — Going from $13.53-an-hour to $16.25-an-hour and being able to work 40 hours per week means homecare workers like Elaine Brown and Rich Casolla will finally be able to earn a living wage.

“What I’m making right now, I can’t afford to fix my car if it breaks down,” Casolla said last week.

Less than two hours after speaking with CTNewsJunkie, according to Casolla, a ball joint on his vehicle broke a second time. The first time it happened, a friend from his church was able to help him fix it because he simply didn’t have the money. This time the part was under warranty and the tow was covered by his AAA membership.

But Casolla said that without a car he can’t earn a living and get to his client’s home to take care of him. If he can’t get there then the client might need to go into a nursing home, which would cost the state more.

“The salaries are so low many workers have to receive benefits from the state,” Brown said. “You have people living with their parents.”

Brown said she’s lucky because as a military veteran she has healthcare through the Veterans Administration.

She said because she was limited to 25 hours per week as a homecare worker, she had to find another job working with homeless female veterans. Even with the two jobs, Brown said she still had to rely on a loan from her sister to get by and pay her bills.

“You don’t want to get handouts, but you do what you have to to survive,” Brown said.

She said it’s also a very physical job and the workers’ compensation coverage gives her peace of mind.

Their stories are similar to those of the 8,500 homecare workers in Connecticut who organized in 2012 and were able to secure their first contract in 2014.

Their path to forming a union was complicated. It started with an executive order and then was reinforced by legislative action to recognize their ability to collectively bargain with the state.

Several lawsuits seeking to invalidate their collective bargaining rights were unsuccessful and allowed these workers to continue their negotiations with the state. Medicaid is partially funded by the state, but these home care workers are not state employees. They are instead employed by private citizens through Medicaid waivers using state and federal funds. They receive paychecks through a third-party payroll company.

An initial contract for around $20 million for their services was never approved as part of the two-year state budget Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed on Oct. 31, 2017. The lack of funding sent the state and the union back into negotiations.

The new three-year contract, which was presented to the Appropriations Committee last week, would:

• increase wages to $16.25 an hour by 2020;

• allow workers to work beyond the 25.75 hours-per-week cap, and;

• include workers’ compensation coverage if they hurt themselves on the job.

Deborah Schwartz, vice president of homecare services for SEIU District 1199, said this is a “low-income workforce doing valuable work,” and this contract provides a “vital wage increase.”

She said these workers have gone 27 months with no increase.

The newly negotiated contract, which totals about $7 million, also includes overtime for key holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving and pay for orientation and training.

It will be the first labor contract state lawmakers have been asked to vote on since the changes to the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition agreement in 2017. Those changes were approved largely along party lines.

Labor supporters worry that since Republican lawmakers opposed the ability of these workers to collectively bargain, they will also oppose the contract. However, some Republicans seem to have left that battle in their rear-view mirrors.

Deputy House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, said there’s a possibility Republicans will support the contract, but he has yet to caucus it with his members.

Candelora said it’s very difficult for the homecare workers to live at their current wage levels and there is a recognition of the hard work they do for Connecticut’s aging population.

Senate Republican Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said his caucus also has not talked about the contract, but he said, “I can see myself getting behind it.”

Fasano said he still wants to investigate some aspects of the contract, but “I know the value of the work” and “I know the patience it takes.”

He said he frankly didn’t know how little these workers were being paid.

So even though Republicans fought attempts by this group of workers to unionize, there appears to be a general appreciation for the work they do among GOP leaders.

House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, said he’s supportive of the contract.

“We are talking about low-wage workers with the enormous responsibility of caring for our loved ones, who are also saving taxpayers millions of dollars by helping people stay in their homes,” he said.

Aresimowicz said he doesn’t believe the Appropriations Committee has to hold a public hearing on the contract, but it’s planning one regardless.

The Appropriations Committee has yet to schedule that public hearing.

The General Assembly will have to vote on anticipated wage and training costs in the contract. The Appropriations Committee will hold an informational hearing at 2 p.m. Thursday, March 15 in Room 2E of the Legislative Office Building.