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

A three-week long labor strike involving 1,700 Connecticut group home workers came to a close this week as unions ratified new two-year contracts with six nonprofit providers including raises of about $1.25 per hour in the first year. 

The strike began on May 24 and involved employees of group homes serving around 1,500 people with disabilities. The workers, represented by SEIU District 1199NE, rallied daily outside the state Capitol building during the last weeks of the legislative session in which state policymakers approved more than $100 million additional funding to support the programs. 

The money was far less than the unions had sought in a session-long lobbying effort coordinated with nonprofit leaders. In an interview Thursday, Rob Baril, president of the health care workers union, said the contracts and raises represented incremental progress.

“That’s $1.25 that people didn’t have last week so we’re really happy about that,” Baril said. “It’s far short of what people need, but we also know that we waged our best fight and a lot of these workers are really transformed. They now see themselves as part of a movement to end poverty for long term care workers and they feel hope for the first time.”

Employees were returning to work with new contracts at Oak Hill in Hartford, Mosaic locations in Cromwell, Whole Life in Waterford, Network Human Services in Manchester, as well as The Caring Community and Alternative Services, Inc in Colchester. 

Although they are operated by nonprofits, the group homes provide services once offered by state government and are largely paid for through state and federal funding. The CT Community Nonprofit Alliance, a coalition representing providers, estimated that more than a decade of flat funding had left providers about 46% behind inflation. 

Gian-Carl Casa, president and CEO of the alliance, said additional funding included in this year’s budget amounted to around 7% for providers funded through the Department of Developmental Services and 2.5% for others. 

“They find it increasingly difficult to maintain programs, increasingly difficult to keep workers and it’s at the point where this portion of the state’s safety net is not able to function as well as it used to,” he said. 

Gov. Ned Lamont released a statement on Thursday applauding the workers and their nonprofit employers for working together to reach wage and benefit agreements. 

“With the assistance of funding provided by the recently enacted bipartisan budget for fiscal years 2024 and 2025, these labor agreements will support wage increases that will help with recruitment and retention of essential staff,” Lamont said. “This budget provides broad-based assistance for our private providers and grant opportunities to support infrastructure improvements, and thus improve care.”

Although he thanked Lamont and his staff as well as legislative leaders on Thursday, Baril said the budget should have done much more for workers, who had hoped to see their wages increased from around $17 per hour to $25. 

He pointed to the state’s recent string of budget surpluses. The state comptroller expects Connecticut will end the fiscal year with a surplus of $1.6 billion and its budget reserve fund is full at around $2.9 billion. 

However, policymakers were constrained by fiscal guardrails including a spending cap. Lamont was insistent this year on adherence to the spending restrictions, which have resulted in billions in additional payments on Connecticut’s long neglected pension liabilities. 

On Thursday, Baril argued that the spending restrictions were dysfunctional and had prevented Connecticut from using surpluses to support transformational change for group home workers including those living “on the edge of poverty.” 

Baril would not speculate whether additional strikes were likely in the coming years, but said, “when the state has resources that it chooses not to allocate, it kind of makes conflict unavoidable, doesn’t it?”