Shayli Rivera, a group home worker at Sunrise Northeast Credit: Contributed photo

Union members were set to strike Tuesday morning at 28 group homes and day programs for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities that are run by Sunrise Northeast Opportunities.

Direct care staff who will be on the picket line instead of caring for their clients over better pay, less expensive health care and a path to retirement felt they had no choice since contract negotiations have stalled, although the state has provided $184 million in funding for group home workers, members of the New England Health Care Employees Union SEIU District 1199 said.

“We bathe them, we feed them, we give them their medications, we take them to appointments, we are their caregivers, we become their family,” said Jennifer Brown, who has worked for Sunrise Northeast for nearly 25 years. “This is just sad. I can’t believe it has come to this.”

Strikes were avoided a week ago for workers at Whole Life, Inc. and Network, Inc. after management agreed to seek a portion of the state funding for group homes which the union fought for and won in June.

“Most of these workers are making less than $17 an hour. They have to pay $6,000 in monthly premiums for family health insurance coverage at Sunrise, and no retirement pension to look forward to in their elder years,” said union president Rob Baril in a press release. “Even after workers were able to leverage more than $184 million in additional state funding from Governor Ned Lamont’s administration, Sunrise continues to deny a fair contract for its own workers while the CEO rakes in $325,000 per year.”

Workers have little choice but to strike, Brown and others said. 

“We are so short-staffed, we can’t afford to be out sick,” said Shayli Rivera, who has worked providing direct care to clients of Sunrise Northeast for seven years. “There is no one to fill in for us.”

Rivera said she works between 55 and 70 hours a week because of the staffing shortage. There are times when there is one staff member at the home instead of two or three which would be safer for clients and employees, Rivera said.

At the same time, Rivera said the health insurance provided by Sunrise Northeast is so expensive none of the employees can afford to buy it, leaving most without health care. Brown said she had to go part-time at Sunrise Northeast so she could purchase health care at a different group home agency. She now works multiple jobs in group homes, but said she hasn’t had a raise in 15 years.

Brown said she will be picketing outside the company’s day program headquarters in Hartford at 6 a.m. Tuesday.

Representatives of Sunrise Northeast did not respond Monday to repeated requests for an interview. 

“The hardest part of this is leaving the clients,” Rivera said. “I work first shift, so four days a week, I wake them up. This is breaking my heart. I have no idea how this company is going to survive even on Day One, because there are so few people who want to do this job. Whoever gets clients up in the morning sets their mood for the day.”

The strike will impact about 150 workers, union officials said.

“They haven’t had a raise in 15 years and they don’t have healthcare,” said Pedro Zayas, communications director for the union. “The system has relied on poverty wages for workers for too long but the pandemic brought the chickens home to roost.”

Agreements reached in recent weeks with other group home agencies gave workers raises retroactive to July 31, increased the share of health care premiums paid by the company to up to 90% in some cases and required the companies to increase pension plan contributions to 9% or more.

The agreements are contingent on the companies receiving the state funding and on ratification of the contract by union members, officials said.

Group home workers threatened to strike in June but that action was shelved when the state promised the additional $184 million in Medicaid funding for increased wages and benefits. Union officials said group home operators have been slow to negotiate raises and apply for the state funding.

More than 3,400 workers from the same union threatened to strike at 33 nursing homes in May, but all of the work stoppages were put off as state officials have offered more money to workers and nursing home owners.

A second strike planned Tuesday morning for group homes and day programs at Alternative Services was avoided after negotiations Monday netted a contract that included pay raises and better benefits, union officials said.