SEIU Protest (Shana Sureck/ photo) Credit: Shana Sureck / SEIU

HARTFORD, CT  —  Standing in view of a coffin draped with white flowers, more than 100 long-term care workers blocked an intersection in front of the state Department of Social Services Wednesday to call attention to the treatment of caregivers who deal with Connecticut’s most vulnerable residents.

Angel Dawes is a home care worker who helps a disabled client remain in their home but she doesn’t get health care, paid sick or vacation days or make a living wage, she said.

“PCAs (personal care assistants) are Black and Brown women,” Dawes, an Ansonia resident, told the crowd. “We care for the state of Connecticut, we save the state money by keeping people in their homes. We need the state to step up, respect us and protect us.”

The “die-in” at the intersection of Farmington Avenue and Flower Street in front of DSS headquarters was staged by the New England Health Care Employees Union, District 1199 SEIU to draw attention to the plight of long-term caregivers working in home care, group homes and nursing homes.

SEIU Protest (Shana Sureck / photo)

The union is calling for DSS Commissioner Deidre Gifford, who is also the acting commissioner for the state Department of Public Health, to support a long-term care worker bill of rights that would include a pathway to $20 an hour for caregivers.

Chanting “no one should be working poor,” union members spoke in view of the coffin which represented the 4,500 patients who died from COVID-19 during the pandemic in long-term care settings and the 18 long-term care workers who also died from the disease.

They have no benefits and barely make a living wage, but they have worked through the pandemic putting their own lives on the line while keeping their clients and patients safe, said Suzanne Clark, union secretary treasurer.

“We’re here to say this system is broken,” Clark said. “People are speaking of returning to normal, but returning to normal is not enough staff, returning to normal is caregivers living in poverty, returning to normal means caregivers are working two, three, four jobs.”

The union is asking the state to increase funding for DSS and the state Department of Developmental Services so that long-term care workers in group homes, home care and nursing homes can receive a pay increase and benefits.

Home care workers like Dawes make $16.25 an hour under the union contract with the state, but they have no access to affordable healthcare, paid time off or retirement options, union officials said. Home care workers not covered by the union contract can make minimum wage. The union contends that all long-term workers should be making $20 and be provided with basic benefits.

DSS officials said that nursing homes that care for Medicaid patients have received “tens of millions of dollars in extra state and federal support” from Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration during the pandemic, which included pay raises for “critical nursing home staff who provide direct care.”

SEIU Protect (Shana Sureck/ photo)

A total of $21.1 million in Coronavirus Relief Fund grants were given to nursing homes in November and December, said David Dearborn, spokesman for DSS. There will also be a 5% Medicaid rate increase for January and February and a 10% Medicaid rate increase for March for a total of $16.1 million, Dearborn said.

That’s in addition to $71.1 million in previous increases and grants paid since the pandemic began, Dearborn said.

Home care workers paid by DSS also were eligible to receive 7.5% pay increases from April to June of 2020 and received federal sick time, he said. “And we distributed PPE (personal protective equipment) to them,” Dearborn said.

The issue, according to the union, is that there is no increased funding in Lamont’s two-year budget. “Not only can the state do something about wages, they can do something for short staffing,” said Pedro Zayas, the union’s communications director. “Wages are so low, they aren’t competitive.”

Long-term care workers are in short supply because many are sick and others don’t want to risk their lives during the pandemic in a nursing home or home care setting for little pay, Zayas said. “You can make as much flipping burgers,” he said.

Amye Stoddard works as a job coach for adults with developmental disabilities at Journey Found between 75 and 110 hours a week to make ends meet, she said. At $15 an hour, she tends to overbuy groceries when she has a good paycheck because she never knows if by the next week she’ll be able to afford food, she said.

“I deserve to spend time with my daughter,” she said. “I deserve to go to the doctor’s office without going into debt. I shouldn’t have to worry about feeding myself while I feed your loved ones.”