Over 1,700 group home care providers in Connecticut are planning to strike next Wednesday, demanding living wages, affordable health insurance, and retirement funding. The strike notices have been delivered to several group home agencies, including Oak Hill, Mosaic, Whole Life, Network, Caring Community, and Alternative Services, Inc., with an indefinite work stoppage scheduled to begin on May 24.
Oak Hill President and CEO Barry Simon has called on the Connecticut General Assembly and Gov. Ned Lamont to authorize a cost-of-living adjustment to the organization’s state contracts. With only a 1% increase over the biennium, Oak Hill can no longer pay its staff a fair rate. As a result, the New England Health Care Employees Union, District 1199, SEIU, gave strike notice on Friday, May 12th. If a reasonable COLA is not included in the budget, a strike impacting Oak Hill’s programs will commence on at 6 a.m., May 24th until further notice. If the strike begins, up to 420 vulnerable and medically fragile group home residents will be temporarily moved to other DDS programs, consolidated group homes, or placed in the care of family members.
“I urgently call on Legislative Leadership and the Governor to authorize a reasonable cost-of-living adjustment to Oak Hill’s and all non-profit state contracts,” said Simon. “If union terms are not met, there will be severe quality-of-life implications for the individuals we serve. A strike of any length will have debilitating mental health and treatment impacts for the individuals who call Oak Hill home. Can you imagine having to leave your home of 30 years?”
Oak Hill supports SEIU 1199’s position that group home workers and other direct support professionals should be fairly compensated for their work. After more than 17 years without a true cost-of-living adjustment to its state contracts, Oak Hill’s group home workers’ and educators’ salaries have not kept pace with inflation. Many employees in the industry are forced to work multiple jobs and rely on public assistance to make ends meet. Due to the rate set by the State, Oak Hill has nearly 200 open positions that it struggles to fill. If Oak Hill were fully staffed, it could provide residential services to 75 additional individuals with disabilities and educate the 65 students on the waitlist for Oak Hill School.
Rob Baril, President of the New England Health Care Employees Union, SEIU 1199NE, stressed the importance of ending poverty for all caregivers. He emphasized that despite the challenges faced during the pandemic, essential workers and caregivers in Connecticut continue to struggle financially.
To lift group home workers out of poverty, Connecticut’s group home services require an additional $400 million in Medicaid funding in the state’s biennial budget. This would provide a pathway to a $25/hr minimum wage, access to affordable healthcare, and a pension allowing workers to retire after decades of service. Connecticut group home services receive 50% matching funds from the federal government. The additional investment of $400 million in Medicaid funding consists of $200 million in state dollars, with the remaining $200 million funded by federal dollars.
The strike will involve union group home workers from various roles, including direct support and direct care staff, dietary workers, maintenance staff, program aides, job coaches, assistant managers, assistant program coordinators, residential day program workers, assistant teachers, behavior paraprofessionals, and some licensed practical nurses.
Stacy Heyliger, a direct support staff member from Network Inc. in Manchester, shared her experience of working two full-time jobs and still struggling to make ends meet. She highlighted the strenuous nature of the work and the difficulties faced by many workers who cannot afford to take care of themselves due to low pay and inadequate benefits.