Workers on strike outside of Oak Hill in Hartford Credit: Christine Stuart photo

Over 1,700 group home and day program workers who provide care for individuals with disabilities in Medicaid-funded agencies across Connecticut launched an indefinite strike Wednesday. They are demanding higher wages, affordable healthcare, and adequate retirement funding.

The caregivers are calling for a pathway to a minimum wage of $25 per hour, a significant increase from their current entry-level wages of $17.25 per hour. Furthermore, they are seeking affordable healthcare and additional funding for retirement after decades of service.

To meet these demands, strikers are requesting an additional $400 million in Medicaid funding for group homes and day programs. The funding requires $200 million from state funds and an equal amount matched by federal funds.

Rob Baril, President of the New England Health Care Employees Union, SEIU 1199NE, noted that the strike aims to achieve economic justice. “This work is almost entirely funded by the state with Medicaid dollars. This pays for the care received by individuals with disabilities and provided by our members, in many cases 24 hours a day,” Baril said. “Tragically, the workforce of 1,700 members that is striking today does that work at poverty-level wages, many of them without affordable health insurance.”

Workers from agencies such as Oak Hill, Mosaic, Whole Life, Network, Caring Community, and Alternative Services, Inc., joined the strike. 

Janet Johnson has been working at Oak Hill for nearly 38 years and only making $23 an hour. She said jobs at Target and McDonald’s pay better, yet “we are responsible for people’s lives.” 

She said they don’t want to be on strike, they want to be taking care of their clients, but no one should have to sleep in their cars when they’re in the health care field. She said that’s what some of her colleagues have to do. Or they work two or three jobs.

“It shouldn’t be that way,” Johnson said.

“I’ve been in the long-term care field for 20 years. I make $17.25 an hour,” Sylvia Grant, a caregiver working with Oak Hill for the past two years, said. “I’m prediabetic. I cannot afford my health care. I cannot afford to get sick. This is not acceptable. I should not have to make these choices in my life, while I’m taking care of the lives of other people.”

According to Oak Hill President and CEO Barry Simon these workers deserve a raise. He called on Gov. Ned Lamont and lawmakers to pass a cost of-living adjustment commensurate to the experience and dedication necessary to serve  individuals with disabilities. 

He said as it stands, the executive branch and legislature have proposed a 1% COLA to Oak Hill’s state contracts over the next two years. After decades of underfunding, 1% does not come close to paying our staff a living wage, especially in a time of high inflation and increases to medical insurance. 

Meanwhile, the Department of Developmental Services said they’ve been working to make sure the clients are taken care of during this time. 

“All individuals and families impacted by the strike were contacted last week and continue to be made aware of providers’ plans to manage operations. While we cannot comment on the status of current contract negotiations between the union and private providers, we are hopeful this matter will be resolved soon,” DDS spokesman Kevin Bronson said.