Around 100 people stood by the gates of the governor’s residence Tuesday morning to demand health care benefits for the workers who provide subsidized child care services to more than 20,000 children of low and middle income families in Connecticut.
The protesters, many of them clad in the purple and yellow colors of SEIU unions, congregated in the sun outside the closed, wrought iron gates that insulate the governor’s mansion from the rest of the upscale neighborhood in the West End of Hartford.
They chanted slogans, “Governor, you can make this right. Health care is a human right,” and streamed music through a set of speakers arranged in one of the residence’s driveways. Jennifer Brown, a unionized group home worker, danced along Prospect Avenue to an Aretha Franklin song, prompting beeps from passing cars.
A Hartford police cruiser observed the event from the corner of Belknap Road but Gov. Ned Lamont didn’t see or hear any of it. According to his staff, he was in transit back to Connecticut from Houston, where he watched the UConn men’s basketball team secure a national title Monday night.
The governor’s absence went unmarked by the crowd, which sought to raise support for some 4,000 child care providers who are funded by state and federal subsidies under the Care4Kids program. The group, largely made up of Latina and Black women, has been in contract negotiations with the state for over a year.
On Tuesday, their focus was health care benefits. At the moment, they have none. Katherine Lantigua, owner of a daycare center in Bridgeport and president of CSEA SEIU Local 2001, said the situation has forced her to put off health care procedures.
“Every year, my husband and I hold a breath waiting to see whether or not we will qualify for … health enhancement,” Lantigua said. “We are teetering on the edge of eligibility. I am here today to remind Governor Lamont how important child care is, assuring that our state economy is able to continue to move forward.”
Providers also argued for pay raises, saying low compensation exacerbated their difficulties accessing health care.
“How are providers supposed to afford health care when they make an average hourly wage of just $8.50?” said Cathy Sarri, national director of early learning and care for SEIU. “Soon that means that providers are going to be earning half the minimum wage in this state.”
In addition to the contract negotiations, there is uncertainty over how the Care4Kids program will be funded in the coming years. During the pandemic, Connecticut used additional federal funding to raise income limits and expanded eligibility in order to help more parents get back to work. Those additional federal funds are running out.
When Lamont made his budget recommendations to the state legislature in February, he called for additional funding for the program to support pay increases of 10% for licensed providers and 5% for unlicensed providers in each of the budget’s two years.
The budget also dedicates $35 million in pandemic funds to support the broadened eligibility “as the state moves towards a sustainable level of enrollment in the program.” But it doesn’t include any funds in the second year of the budget for this purpose. And it plans to serve fewer children, which means less money for child care providers in the future.
In a statement Tuesday, the governor’s chief spokesman, Adam Joseph, stressed investments in the program made by the administration.
“Since taking office, Governor Lamont has made historic investments in childcare and, in particular, the Care4Kids program,” Joseph said. “This has led to more slots for children and better pay for childcare workers. We look forward to an agreement that continues to provide stability to this industry as we transition to a post-pandemic economy.”
Not all elected officials agree. Rep. Jillian Gilchrest, D-West Hartford, rallied with the child care workers outside the governor’s residence and argued that Connecticut had treated the providers with disrespect through low wages and no health coverage.
“I stand with you outside the governor’s mansion, demanding that Connecticut change the way we do business, that we treat you with the dignity and the respect that you deserve because for so many of us, we couldn’t do the work, we couldn’t live the lives we live without you,” Gilchrest said.