SEIU protest
SEIU members protest for better pay in front of the state Department of Social Services building on Farmington Avenue in Hartford, Connecticut. Credit: Shana Sureck / SEIU

A strike was averted at a string of group homes after the owners brokered a “historic” union contract that gives workers raises, more affordable health insurance and better retirement benefits during a 15-hour negotiation session, officials said.

But, members of the New England Health Care Employees Union issued strike notices Wednesday to two other companies that run group homes and will proceed with a work stoppage Tuesday at a fourth company unless progress is made in negotiations, officials said.

The strike planned for Network, Inc. was called off after the company agreed to a 17% increase for less experienced workers, bringing their pay to $17.25 an hour by July 2022. More experienced workers will get 5% increases in 2021 and 2022, according to the terms of the new contract union officials said. Network, Inc. officials did not respond to an emailed request for comment late Wednesday afternoon.

The agreement will take more than 300 group home workers out of poverty and sets the stage for other group home contracts to follow suit, Rob Baril, president of the union, said.

“We are hopeful that this becomes the settlement pattern,” Baril said.

Group home workers take care of clients with intellectual and physical disabilities who may need assistance in every aspect of their daily activities.

Workers at Network, Inc. group homes have been working without a contract since March. Under the deal the company will pick up between 70 and 90% of workers’ health care premiums and increase the employers’ pension contribution to 9.5%. The contract is retroactive to July 2021 and will expire in March of 2023.

“This is a great victory,” said Yvonne Dimmett who works four jobs at various group homes including Network, Inc. “I haven’t seen anything like this working in this field for 35 years.”

Another 300 union members who work at Whole Life, Inc. are prepared to strike on Oct. 5 unless contract negotiations with that agency moves forward, union officials said. The union’s contract with Whole Life, Inc. ran out in 2019, officials said.

The union also issued strike notices Wednesday to Sunrise Northeast and Alternative Services for a work stoppage that is slated to start on Oct. 12.

Those strikes would impact 260 union members, Baril said.

Union members have gone with raises for about 15 years, workers said. At Sunrise Northeast, “The cost of health insurance is twice of what they are making,” Baril said. “This is why workers have decided to strike.”

The union represents about 3,000 group home workers who are employed by 20 agencies throughout the state, Baril said. Most of agencies are in contract negotiations with the union, but Baril declined to comment on which contracts were likely to settle quickly.

Group home workers threatened to strike in June but that action was averted when the state promised $184 million for increased wages and benefits. 

It was up to the group home owners to negotiate with the union and then apply for the state funding, Baril said. In most cases, that hasn’t happened leading workers to vote in favor of striking, he said.

It’s not unusual for group home workers to work multiple jobs to make ends meet, Baril said. In some cases workers are mandated to stay an extra 8 or 16 hours or they are required to work 32 hours straight, he said.

But they receive little in pay and benefits said Sherri Nash who provides direct support to group home clients. “I know what it’s like to go to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription for my son and to have to walk away without that prescription,” said Nash who called the contract with Network, Inc. “historic.”  

The union is seeking a pathway to $20 an hour to employees who provide direct care to group home occupants and $30 an hour for licensed practical nurses who provide support to group homes.

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 averted as state officials have offered more money to workers and nursing-home owners.

“We are writing a new chapter for long-term care services in Connecticut,” Baril said. 

“Working together with the state and operators on the problem of poverty wages, unaffordable health care for caregivers, retirement opportunities and dignity in the workplace, we are ever closer to a full transformation of the long-term care sector.”