seiu 1199
Home care workers rally outside the state Capitol Credit: Cloe Poisson for SEIU 1199NE

Close to 75% of 760 home care workers paid through state Medicaid funding relied on state assistance to get by in the past year, according to a survey done by the New England Heath Care Employees Union, SEIU District 1199.

More than 35% relied on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, to feed themselves and their families and 42% have paid late fees or had bills go into collection during the same period, the survey revealed.

It’s a problem that has festered for more than a year as the union and state officials have gone back and forth over a new contract that would raise wages, provide health care and retirement benefits and paid time off to a workforce that is predominantly Black, Hispanic and working-class white women, SEIU 1199 President President Rob Baril said Wednesday. 

“We’ve been in negotiations to raise people out of poverty for over a year,” Baril said. “They have no sick days, no ability to retire and people are going without medical care which is putting them in life-threatening situations.”

The union wants the 10,000 home care workers paid through state Medicaid funding to receive $20 an hour, paid sick time, health care and a path to retirement much like the contracts that were approved for group home and nursing home workers.

The union officials said the state received $240 million for community-based care programs through the American Rescue Plan Act that can be used to bolster wages and benefits for home care workers who are struggling. Their contract ran out on June 30 but negotiations have been spotty since then, union officials said.

The home care workers, known as personal care assistants, have taken care of their clients who are physically and intellectually disabled throughout the pandemic, Baril said.

But since federal funding for COVID-19 sick days for PCAs ran out at the end of September, anyone who takes time off to recover from the virus doesn’t get paid, union officials said.

That created a financial crisis for Faye Hargrove, a PCA from New Haven, who lost $1,800 in wages due to time off to recover from COVID-19 including a week-long hospital stay, she said. “I have insurance but it doesn’t pay the first $7,000 of my hospital bill,” Hargrove said. “The gas company has threatened to shut me off. My daughter helps me buy groceries because sometimes I can’t afford food.”

She’s not alone, according to the survey. In the past year, 33% of PCAs who responded haven’t been able to afford groceries, 22% have received a utility shut-off notice, 50% have taken an unpaid day off in the last six months and 26% have unpaid medical debt.

For Israel Alvarado that means he continually makes a choice between paying bills and feeding his family and affording his medication to keep a tumor on his pituitary gland in check, he said. He has no health insurance and had a heart attack last year, he said. He needs a second heart operation but can’t afford it, he said.

“I don’t have that type of money to take care of my health,” Alvarado said.

The stories and the numbers are shocking said Rep. Hilda Santiago, D- Meriden. “It’s inexcusable that we still have people who can’t pay the rent and are not on healthcare because they can’t afford it,” she said.

Santiago said she would be supporting the push at the legislative level to get the state to fund the contract the union wants. “These statistics are really, really bad. We need professional caregivers and I’m committing to making sure the contract goes through,” she told the union.

Sen. Derek Slap, D-West Hartford, echoed Santiago’s concerns. “We see the statistics and those are one thing, those are shocking, but to hear the stories that puts a person touch on this,” Slap said.

His mother worked as a geriatric nurse while supporting her family as a single parent, Slap said. “I know what it means to have a parent raising you on their own,” Slap said. “To not have basic health care is unconscionable.”

Angel Bailey, of Ansonia, does have Husky health care through the state. But it puts her in a position where she has to limit her work to 24 hours a week to maintain coverage. “I can’t roll the dice without coverage,” she said.

In December she contracted COVID-19 and lost $600 in pay. I had to borrow money from my son just to pay rent,” she said. “That’s sad.”