The public sector has been a pathway to the middle class for Black and Hispanic families in the state of Connecticut for decades, according to union leaders.
But that pathway is narrowing with rampant retirements and downsizing and more needs to be done to hire and retain diversity in state employment, said Rob Baril, president of the New England Health Care Employees Union, District 1199 SEIU speaking as part of the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition.
“It guts good jobs that are the foundation of middle class life,” Baril said.
Members of SEBAC spoke out Tuesday during a press conference outlining their demands to increase public sector employment for Black and brown communities and provide state workers with ways to ensure racial equity and justice in the workplace.
SEBAC wants state officials to fill the 10,000 positions that have been left vacant in the past decade and the more than 10,000 positions expected to be left vacant by the “Silver Tsunami” of expected state employee retirements in the next year.
The effort would not only provide more state services to communities of color, but also employ more people of color in good paying jobs, Baril and others said. “This doesn’t just hurt the primarily Black and brown communities that have been starved of the public services they need – it guts the good jobs in those same communities,” Baril said.
SEBAC also wants the state to issue a written zero tolerance policy that would prevent supervisors from engaging in bias or retaliation against workers who complain about discrimination on the job. The coalition wants the state to hire an ombudsperson who would deal with issues of racial justice within the state employee workforce and create a fund for professional development that would level the playing field for Black and Hispanic employees who want higher paying jobs or managerial positions.
“We need a real expansion of state services to level the playing field,” Drew Phalen Stoner, spokesperson for SEBAC, said. “There are 20,000 less state employees while there is a record wait for behavioral health treatment. Inpatient beds are closed because there aren’t enough workers to staff the facilities. Those are racial justice issues.”
The need to hire state workers to provide good paying jobs to communities of color and the need for more state services for low income families are “interlinking, inseparable demands,” Stoner said.
People tend to forget that Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 wasn’t about having a dream, but rather having opportunities for employment and freedom, Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, said.
“We’re still talking about it today,” Winfield said. “The public sector is where we have made the most progress.”
“I want to make sure we don’t have to be talking about it in the future,” Winfield said.
It’s a question of equity, said academic researcher and retired Berkley Professor Steven Pitts who pointed out that in the private sector Blacks and Hispanics made 66% and 58% of what whites made in 2019.
But in the public sector that same year the pay gap narrowed to 94.4% and 83.3%, Pitts said. “State government reduces gender and racial inequalities,” Pitts said.
The problem is that the number of state jobs has been decreasing for a decade, leaving fewer opportunities for Black and Hispanic workers, said Makenzi Hurtado, a teacher at the state-run Prince Tech High School and the vice president of the State Vocational Federation of Teachers.
“Children of color deserve more teachers of color,” Hurtado said. “White students deserve more teachers of color. It is proven that students perform better when they have a diverse group of adults educating them.”
“Right now there are no efforts to retain and hire more teachers of color,” Hurtado said.
Her job with the state Department of Developmental Services has provided for economic stability for her family, said Georgia Davis, a member of District 1199.
When her family moved from Waterbury to Wolcott, a school official told her that it probably would be a good idea to have her children stay back a grade, presuming that they wouldn’t be able to keep up, she said.
Her state job allowed her to advocate for her children who have gone on to be successful in school, she said.
“It allowed me to say, no, you won’t dictate what the future looks like for my children,” Davis said. “We need to fill these vacancies and positions now. This needs to be done now. If we are truly committed to racial justice as a state, we must have economic justice where public sector jobs are protected because they serve as one of the only ways of decreasing racism and racial wealth gaps in our state.”