Officials at one nonprofit that runs about 70 group homes for individuals with disabilities spent Thursday preparing to send some to nursing homes as a strike deadline loomed.
The strike at about 200 group homes involving 2,000 workers who are members of the New England Health Care Employees Union SEIU District 1199 is set to begin at 6 a.m. Friday.
The union had delayed the strike date by two weeks when Gov. Ned Lamont indicated the state was willing to negotiate.
But as of 2 p.m. Thursday, the negotiations had not led to a settlement, leaving Barry Simon, the CEO of Oak Hill, which runs 70 group homes serving 400 individuals mostly with intellectual and developmental disabilities to prepare to move clients.
Many are medically complex and in wheelchairs, Simon said. “They have high medical needs,” Simon said. “They are in wheelchairs, they need food preparation, oxygen.”
The nonprofit has tried to find staff from temp agencies to fill in, but there are no workers available, Simon said.
“We need 500 to 600 but we found 13,” Simon said. As of Thursday afternoon, some clients had been moved to group homes with openings. Those homes will be manned by managers, he said.
Nearly 200 people will be moved to nursing homes for their safety, Simon said. Since Thursday morning, the agency had been pushing back the deadline for the move by a few hours at a time in the hope that the state will agree to the union’s demands of higher wages, a path to retirement and affordable health care.
The latest deadline was set for 3 p.m., Simon said. The moves are complicated since the medical records, medications and equipment for each client must be moved with them, he said.
“What the union is asking for is not unreasonable,” Simon said. The state pays Oak Hill and the other agencies to run the group homes, but the state also sets the rates they receive, he said.
“If they don’t adjust the rates, we don’t have the ability to provide wage increases,” since the group homes are fully funded by the state, Simon said.
The state has not increased the rates in 14 years, he said.
“We need to reach parity with nursing home workers to pull poor Black, brown and white working women out of poverty,” said Rob Baril, president of District 1199. “Caregivers risked their lives during COVID-19. We cannot preserve a labor model for group home long-term care services that relies on poverty wages.”
Baril said the union is trying to get the same deal that nursing home workers reached by pressing the state for more funding.
Speaker of the House Matthew Ritter, D-Hartford, said Thursday morning that the legislature was prepared to come up with the money. “It would not be a huge issue to respond to that,” Ritter said.
But Gov. Ned Lamont said Thursday that the funding was tied up in state budget negotiations.
“We’ve got to figure out what we do with the group homes. The legislative budget doesn’t account for that,” Lamont said Thursday morning.
He called the negotiations ongoing, but it’s unclear whether they will conclude before the morning.
On May 20, after withdrawing strike notices for May 21, the union issued new strike notifications for June 4 at Oak Hill, Network, Whole Life, Mosaic, Journey Found, and Sunrise, agencies that run 200 group homes throughout the state.
The union is seeking a pathway to $20 an hour for employees who provide direct care to group home occupants and $30 an hour for licensed practical nurses who provide support to them.
Union members also want more affordable health care, retirement benefits, better staffing and more respect for the job they do, union officials said.
More than 3,400 workers from the same union were threatening to strike at 33 nursing homes on May 14, but all of the work stoppages were prevented as state officials have offered more money to workers and nursing home owners.
Most of the nursing homes have agreements reached between owners and the state and those deals are in various stages of ratification by members, said Pedro Zayas, communications director for the union.