Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie
Rep. Michael D’Agostino takes a selfie with SEIU 1199 homecare workers (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

HARTFORD, CT — Legislation that increases the pay to $16.25 an hour for unionized homecare workers passed the Senate 32-0 and the House 127-16.

Republican lawmakers were largely opposed to the process used that allowed these 8,500 workers to join a union back in 2012, but a majority of Republicans were able to set those feelings about labor aside and vote in favor of the contract.

House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, said no one approved of the process that allowed the workers to join a union, but that wasn’t what was up for debate Wednesday.

“Look this was a difficult vote,” Klarides said. “We certainly want to help the people who do the difficult jobs of taking care of our loved ones.”

She said they didn’t agree with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s executive orders allowing this group to unionize, “but now that we’re here we had to make a decision today on whether this group of people should have more available to them.”

Most of her colleagues agreed. All 16 votes against the contract in the House were from Republicans.

“I think that this contract is very difficult for many members on this side of the aisle,” Rep. Melissa Ziobron, R-East Haddam, said. “Not because of the pay. Not because of the work these hard working men and women provide, but it’s the process.”

She said they skirted the process by separating this from the budget.

“They should be in the same document every other appropriation is in,” Ziobron said.

The funding for the wage increases and workers’ compensation is part of the Medicaid budget, which is a state and federally funded program. It will cost $7.1 million next year and $9.6 million in 2020 and that money is already accounted for in the Medicaid account.

Ziobron said there’s another group of unionized employees who work for the private, nonprofit sector and take care of intellectually and disabled individuals. That group of 2,500 employees is threatening to strike in April without an increase in wages. The state largely funds those private, nonprofits and has not increased funds for those organizations in more than a decade, which means many of the workers are making less than $13 an hour.

“We are picking winners and losers,” Ziobron said.

In the end, Ziobron voted in favor of the contract.

Malloy, who spoke in support of the homecare worker contract Tuesday, declined to comment on whether the other group of unionized employees should receive an increase in pay. There was a fear that lawmakers might confuse the two groups because they are represented by the same union, SEIU 1199.

“I came to talk about this one,” Malloy said. “We can talk about that later.”

The contract for the homecare workers approved by both chambers Wednesday will raise their wages from $13.25 an hour to $16.25 an hour. The contract also includes workers compensation coverage, which will allow the homecare workers to work beyond the 25.75 hours per week they are capped at now. That’s because working beyond 26 hours would force the client to purchase workers’ compensation, an unaffordable option for an elderly or disabled person who needs care in their home.

Many of the homecare workers work more than one job as a result and many still qualify for state assistance because they can’t cobble the money they need to support themselves and their families.

“This contract means the world to me,” Lucia Nunez, an East Hartford homecare worker, said. “Because of this contract and the vital wage increases it provides I will be one step closer to being able to make ends meet.”

Sen. Craig Miner, R-Litchfield, said he struggled with his vote as he walked through the doors Wednesday morning.

“Today I’m inclined to support this agreement. I think it’s a step in the right direction. I think it sends a message that we do care about the population they serve,” Miner said.

Even Sen. Len Suzio, R-Meriden, a staunch opponent of unionization voted in favor of the contract Wednesday.

“I recognize that the workers involved here are performing incredibly valuable work and that they’re paid very low wages as they are right now and get little to no benefits,” Suzio said.

As far as the union concerns, Rep. Michael D’Agostino, D-Hamden, said the only people who pay dues to this bargaining unit are the members who have agreed to join the bargaining unit. He said there’s no “forced” payment of union dues or agency fees.

He said there are about one hundred or so workers who didn’t join the union and are still doing this work and getting paid through the state. 

D’Agostino, who defended the legislation in the House, was swarmed by SEIU 1199 homecare workers after the vote and thanked for his support.