After a month on the picket line Kim Adams is worried about the clients she takes care of at a Sunrise Northeast group home and her own children and grandchild because she hasn’t been paid since the union action started on Oct. 12.
“The worst part right now is that I have no money for Christmas for my children and my grandchild,” said the 39-year-old Adams who has been an employee of Sunrise Northeast for 10 years taking care of intellectually and developmentally disabled adults.
At this point nothing is getting paid except her cell phone and some small bills, Adams said. She’s relying on her 94-year-old aunt for help and will seek energy assistance since she has no oil to heat her home, she said. She’s spending 25 hours a week on the picket line to make sure she and other employees get better health care, raises and access to pensions, she added. “I want to see if I just wasted 10 years of my life,” Adams said.
She is among 150 members of the New England Health Care Employees Union SEIU 1199 who are employees of Sunrise Northeast striking to get the company to agree to a new contract with better benefits including pay raises and paid time off.
The group marked the one month milestone of the strike Thursday with a rally outside of the company’s Hartford day program and headquarters to demand action on the contract which is now in federal mediation.
Prior to the federal mediation, there had been no negotiations since a few days after the strike began on Oct. 12, union officials said. The workers are not striking against the state which has provided $184 million in funding for group homes to provide better wages, better health care, paid time off and a path to retirement for employees, union officials said.
They are striking against the company which is the last provider to settle on a contract that would take workers out of poverty, said SEIU 1199 President Rob Baril.
“This is the most important struggle taking place in the state,” Baril said as members of several unions and state legislators joined Sunrise employees Thursday to mark the one-month anniversary of the strike.
Every other nursing home and group home chain that faced a possible strike, nearly 60 companies in all, have all settled, negotiating new contracts with the union that include raises, more company contributions for health care and pensions and paid time off, said Pedro Zayas, communications director for the union. “We’re looking for the same language,” Zayas said. “We aren’t looking for anything additional from Sunrise but we’re certainly not going to settle for anything less.”
Sunrise Northeast Executive Director Dawn Frey said in an email that the reason the contract has not been settled is because the union is refusing to come to the table.
“Sunrise Northeast last negotiated with the union on October 14,” Frey said. “Since then, we have made several offers and used the assistance of a federal mediator to try and end the strike and continue negotiations. In addition to prior wage increase offerings, since meeting in October, we have also made proposals that would allow us to join the union’s pension fund. When the union did not respond to that offer, we made an alternative proposal that, contingent upon state funding, would result in increased retirement contributions to employees directly via Sunrise’s 403B plan that would vest immediately.”
Frey claimed that the union has repeatedly failed to respond and “appears to have no intent of coming back to the negotiating table,” she said.
But Zayas said the union has turned down Sunrise’s offers because they aren’t on par with what other agencies have agreed to provide. “Sunrise workers deserve no less than every other worker who already has a union contract that reflects the state funding,” Zayas said.
State and Hartford city officials are perplexed as to why Sunrise Northeast hasn’t settled since the state is picking up the tab, said state Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, the co-chair of the legislature’s Labor and Public Employees Committee.
“The state gave $184 million just for group home workers,” Porter said. “I think they need to do what we expect them to do and what we gave them the funding to do.”
Porter is concerned that the longer the strike wears on, the longer the group home workforce which is predominantly Black, Hispanic and working class white women, are going without pay and benefits. “Everything is going up except wages,” Porter said. She is also concerned that by refusing to provide affordable health care, Sunrise Northeast is forcing employees to use state and federal subsidized health care with the cost borne by taxpayers.
“Making taxpayers pay what you can pay for, that’s greed,” Porter said.
Adams, who up until the strike worked in a group home in the Danielson area, said she is not only concerned about how she is going to support her family. She’s also worried about the clients who she has taken care of, in some cases, for nearly a decade.
Due to the strike Frey conceded that several clients have been placed in nursing homes to make sure they are safe. Adams fears that they will return to the group homes exhibiting behaviors that indicate they had a hard time dealing with the change and that they aren’t receiving the same individualized care.
“We shower them every day,” Adams said. “That’s not going to happen in a nursing home. I love my job, I love taking care of people. A lot of my group are non-verbal and it’s awesome learning now to communicate with them. I know by their gestures what they need or what’s bothering them. It’s that moment when you find something they like and you can tell by their face.”