Rob Baril of SEIU Credit: Mike Savino photo

More than 50 protesters were arrested for blocking Capitol Avenue in Hartford Thursday as striking union workers continue to demand state funding for higher wages and other benefits. 

With lawmakers and Gov. Ned Lamont saying they have a budget deal in place, the workers, who care for the intellectually and developmentally disabled, could be running out of time to get their demands met. 

“Those are not luxuries, those are not extravagances,” said Rob Baril, president of New England Health Care Employees Union, SEIU 1199. “Those are things that people need as basics to live.”

The union, which represents more than 1,700 group home and day program workers, has been on strike since May 24. The group wants a minimum wage of $25 per hour, as well as better healthcare and retirement benefits. 

SEIU workers getting arrested Credit: Mike Savino photo

They estimate those changes would cost $400 million, $200 million in state funds and an equal amount from the federal government under the Medicaid program.  

“The cost of living is going up, food costs are going up, gas is going up,” Toccara Coleman, a personal care assistant with Whole Life Inc., said. “We can’t work for $17 dollars, that’s just not enough.” 

The state approved the funds to bump the minimum wage for union workers up to $17.25 in 2021.

Gov. Ned Lamont was optimistic his office can work something out with SEIU 1199. 

“I know we’re getting closer to a deal,” he said.  

House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, was also hopeful the budget will be enough to get the striking workers to return to work. 

He did not provide figures, but released a statement pointing out the budget goes “above and beyond what was originally proposed in the governor’s budget and the Appropriations Committee” proposals. 

“I am confident we will provide the resources to allow the strike to end and deliver wage increases for workers,” he said in the statement. 

SEIU says that’s not enough. 

SEIU 1199 workers strike outside the Capitol Credit: Mike Savino photo

“There is not, at this time, a recognition about, really, the fact that this workforce is dependent on the state of Connecticut to lift them up out of poverty,” Baril said. 

George Nzekwe, a dietary specialist with Oak Hill, said he works as much as 60 hours a week to support his family of five. 

“I barely spend time with my kids, and I think I don’t deserve that,” he said. “My kids don’t deserve that.” 

The union has maintained a constant presence at the Capitol since going on strike, including a march through the building on May 24 and setting up tents outside the following day. 

SEIU workers arrested Credit: Mike Savino photo

On Thursday, roughly 55 protestors were arrested for blocking Capitol Avenue at the intersection of Trinity and Washington streets. 

They were initially joined by dozens of other protestors while marching in a circle in the street. The entire group sat in the street, but most retreated when police warned they had five minutes to retreat or be arrested. 

Lamont and many legislative leaders have said they are committed to sticking with various statutory guardrails meant to limit how much they can increase spending. Lamont said Thursday the current budget complies with the spending and revenue caps. 

But Baril, one of the arrested protesters, said those measures have helped the state grow its surplus, and the legislature and governor should now use some of that money to help a “workforce that is overwhelmingly female, poor, Black, brown, and working class white” with pay raises. “If not now, as a time to do something more than an incremental change, when?” he said.