SEIU contributed photo of a protest outside state offices. (Alexander Andriulli photo)

More than 10,000 home care workers represented by the New England Health Care Workers Union, SEIU District 1199 are waiting for negotiations to resume this week with the state for increased pay, health care and a path to retirement.

Negotiations with the state have gone nowhere, according to Diedre Murch, home care director and vice president of the union, despite a federal allocation of $200 million from the American Rescue Plan Act earmarked for community care.

The contract is set to expire on June 30. 

“We need to create a home care system that will professionalize and stabilize the home care workforce,” Murch said. “You can’t do that without living wages and basic benefits like health care.”

The union is negotiating with the Workforce Council acting on behalf of Gov. Ned Lamont and the state Office of Policy and Management. The next negotiation session is slated for June 23, Murch said.

Officials in Lamont’s office and the Office of Policy and Management did not respond to a request for comment on the negotiations.

The workers are hoping that the state will grant them the same benefits that nursing home workers and group home workers were able to secure in recent weeks, Murch and Pedro Zayas, communications director for the union, said. 

The state increased the pay of nursing home workers and group home workers after they threatened to strike. 

But the home care workers are in a tougher bargaining position since they cannot strike without leaving their medically and developmentally fragile clients without safe care. They also would have no workplace to picket other than their client’s homes.

The workers want a path to $20 an hour, affordable healthcare, paid sick and vacation time and reasonable retirement benefits, Murch said. The workforce is 80 to 90% female and made up of about 60% people of color.

Many home care workers, who are known as personal care assistants, juggle more than one client and work continuous overtime to make ends meet. 

Nicole Bongiovanni, of Madison, is 65-years-old and works 73 hours a week to care for three clients.

Last year she suffered a mild heart attack and had to be hospitalized for three days. She has no idea how she is going to pay her $25,000 medical bill since she cannot afford health insurance which costs $700 a month.

“That’s half of what I take home annually,” Bongiovanni said. “How am I going to pay these people without healthcare?”

Bongiovanni wants $20 an hour so she doesn’t have to work overtime to make ends meet. “I don’t understand,” she said. “We take care of vulnerable people but we don’t get health care.”

Home care workers are paid by their clients with state money from Medicaid which is administered by the state Department of Social Services and the state Department of Developmental Services. In contract negotiations the union represents 10,000 home care workers who take care of 6,000 clients.

Some workers who are considered per diem and work 24-hour shifts with one client receive a set rate that works out to $7.50 an hour, Murch said. Others are paid $16 an hour, she said.

The union asked DSS Commissioner Deidre Gifford earlier this month to fund the new contract with the $200 million in ARPA money. The union wants the money to bring home care workers’ wages to $21.50 an hour, $73 million for affordable health care, $11 million for paid time off, $7.5 million for retirement benefits and $1.5 million for training.

“The money was earmarked for community-based care programs but we haven’t heard anything concrete yet,” Murch said.

Nursing home workers and group home workers were on the verge of a strike a few weeks ago that was averted by last minute negotiations.

Since home care workers can’t strike, they will engage in other forms of protests such as civil disobedience to get the word out, she said. “Our members are clear that if they have to fight, they will,” Murch said.

They are seeking parity with nursing home and group home workers, said Rep. Edwin Vargas, D-Hartford. “I personally believe it’s only fair to put them on a similar path,” Vargas said.

He also believes the legislature would agree to a reasonable contract. “It would be like the others in that it would be a phase in that would set up the road map, a route to $20 an hour,” Vargas said.  

Ultimately the ball is in Lamont’s court when it comes to the negotiations, Vargas said. Vargas believes the legislature would have to vote to approve the contract – which likely won’t occur until the next session in February.

But, Vargas said, Lamont has the prerogative to make certain moves including executing the terms of the contract before then through executive order.