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

The union representing more than 2,000 workers caring for people with disabilities at 200 group homes sent strike notices Friday to six state agencies. 

The strike by members of New England Health Care Workers Union, SEIU District 1199, is set to start on May 21 at 6 a.m. unless negotiations for better pay, affordable health care and a path to retirement for workers bring results, union officials said. 

More than 3,400 workers from the same union are threatening to strike at 33 nursing homes on May 14 as negotiations with owners and the state have stalled. State officials were working on plans to provide care to residents of nursing homes if a strike occurs, when the group home strike notices went out Friday. 

“At this point, DPH is reviewing strike contingency plans submitted by the nursing facilities potentially affected by a strike called for May 14,” said David Dearborn, a spokesman for the Department of Public Health. “As part of their contingency plans, nursing homes report on provisions for adequate staffing, security, pharmaceuticals, essential supplies and necessary services to meet the needs of the residents.  In the event of a strike, DPH will conduct on-site monitoring inspections at all affected homes to assess care and services.”  

The planning would likely also apply to group homes, Dearborn said. 

Group home workers have received one pay increase in 14 years – in 2018, the last time they threatened to strike, said Stephanie Deceus, union vice president of community programs. 

“Besides that, they have been totally ignored,” Deceus said. 

The union is seeking a pathway to $20 an hour for direct support professionals who care for residents and $30 for licensed practical nurses who provide medical support, Deceus said. 

“This is an easy fix,” Deceus said. “The state needs to stop relying on a long term care system that relies on poverty wages.” 

The workers are paid by the agencies through money from the Department of Developmental Services and Medicaid. The owners of the agencies say they have no money for raises and benefits, which is why the union is turning to the state, Deceus said. 

The strike would affect group homes run by Oak Hill, Journey Found, Mosaic, Network, Sunrise Northeast and Whole Life, Inc, Zayas said. There is a wide range of disabilities among those who live in group homes in the state from people who need some assistance going to work to others who need intensive care, according to Pedro Zayas, communications director for the union. 

Many workers were sick with COVID-19 throughout the pandemic but only some of the agencies provided COVID-19 relief pay and that was only for two weeks, Deceus said. “They had to use their own sick time even though they caught COVID at work,” she said. “In some cases, people wound up owing the agency time because they ran out of sick time.”

On a typical day, Antonia Antico says she and a co-worker care for six men with developmental challenges. During her shift, which starts at 2 p.m., Antico will cook and clean, bathe and dress them, provide lessons in life skills and possibly shop and bring them to medical appointments, she said.  

“I’ve received one 85-cent raise in 11 years,” Antico said. 

Low wages and few benefits are driving people out of group home work leaving the homes are so short-staffed that workers are finding it hard to care for residents, said Pedro Zayas, communications director for the union. 

“Workers are finding themselves trying to care for people but placed in a position where it’s nearly impossible because they are so overloaded,” Zayas said. 

Over 98% of group home workers who voted, voted to strike, Zayas said, and more strike votes are expected. “Added to the nursing home workers, that’s over 5,000 caregivers from 1199 delivering strike notices,” Zayas said. 

Jennifer Brown works a full-time job and two part-time jobs at group homes to pay the bills and get affordable health care, she said. Brown is ready to strike to get better pay and better conditions for herself and others, like her own daughter who also does group home work, she said. 

“Rent is $1,200 or $1,300 a month, which is half your pay,” said Brown, a Hartford resident. “No one has insurance through Sunrise, it’s too expensive. Everywhere is short staffed. It’s a domino effect, I’m supposed to get out at 6 p.m. but I get the call at 5:30 that they need me to stay, but I have a second job. I love my clients, I love what I do, that’s why I stick around. But we’re taking care of individuals and we don’t even have health care if we get sick.”