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Group homes feeling toll as strike approaches

May 2, 2018 GMT

Workers and operators of the state’s private group homes for developmentally disabled adults endured a day of maddening frustration Wednesday as a strike set to start Monday began to take a toll.

And the toll falls on taxpayers too, as preparations for the strike started at an estimated cost of $700,000, mostly for training replacement workers. On this summer-like day, those replacements arrived in some places — at a cost to the state of up to $50 an hour.

So the meter is running now, not tomorrow, not next week.

And as lawmakers slowly geared up to fix a problem they’ve known about for weeks — a fix appeared to be in sight by midday — the strain fell on the people at the nine agencies that employ 2,400 workers with SEIU 1199, the health care workers union organizing the walkout.

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The frustration: No one thinks these workers don’t need a raise. It’s just a matter of making it happen at a time of budget cuts.

Lawmakers haven’t given an increase to the private, mostly nonprofit agencies in at least ten years. In 2012 the state actually cut the outlay in the $1 billion program by about $20 million.

“Their reluctance to actually deal with reality and the facts, it’s amazing to me,” said Barry Simon, CEO of Oak Hill Inc., the largest of the agencies, with about 70 group homes around the state.

These are the same legislators who speak in soaring terms about taking care of the state’s people, and who, in some cases, promise raises. But the votes don’t happen.

“Their ability to conveniently argue one way at one time and then suddenly change their minds is pretty disheartening,” Simon said.

The result is that median pay for workers was $15.58 an hour 20 years ago at Whole Life Inc., another nonprofit group home agency with six homes in and around Bridgeport. Sheila Cordock, the Whole Life executive director, looked up that old number as we spoke, waiting for the House to take up the issue.

Today’s median at the same agency: $15.80. That means her workers have lost about a third of their buying power to inflation. Back then, the minimum wage was $5.65 an hour. Today, it’s $10.10

“People are working at McDonald’s making French fries for $15 an hour,” said Maria Torres, a program aide at a Whole Life group home on Infield Street in Bridgeport.

A single mother, she makes $15.25 an hour after four years in the job, and only has 35 hours in shifts that mostly run for four hours at a time because of her low seniority. A colleague makes $17 an hour as an assistant manager after 25 years on the job.

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And so, as she finished her morning shift getting residents ready for a day program in Bridgeport, she wondered about whether to blame her employer, which pays her and her colleagues under a contract with the state.

“I don’t want to point the finger at Whole Life,” said Torres, a program aide for the last four years, “but geez...You’re being overworked and underpaid.”

Let’s be clear: This isn’t a normal strike and the employers could not be more aligned with the workers preparing to picket. Cordock is encouraging her employees to spend their picketing time — if it comes — at the Capitol along with the sidewalks at the homes.

On this chaotic day, separate bills wended through the House and Senate, and Ben Barnes, the budget chief for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, also worked to negotiate a deal directly through budget talks that are underway. Depending on the fix, the state could pay anywhere from $11 million to $30 million, plus the federal government would match the added outlays because most of the clients are covered under Medicaid.

Some Republicans and even a Democrat or two continued to hold out. Sen. Len Fasano, R-North Haven, the Senate GOP leader, had said he wanted to see the contracts for the none agencies and Barnes’ office was balking at that.

At noon Wednesday, Barnes said he just gave Fasano’s office the contracts. Barnes added that a plan to simply raise pay across the board by 2 percent wouldn’t solve the problem.

Simple arithmetic says why. We’re talking about 14,500 workers at union and nonunion group homes and day programs, some of whom make in the range of $12 an hour. SEIU is mounting the strike but everyone benefits, union or not.

The idea is to boost the minimum to $14.75 an hour on top of long-deferred raises and 2 percent doesn’t do that. Simon and Cordock, the private agency heads, said they’re running out of magic to hire and keep workers at he lower wages. Oak Hill, for example, raises money privately to bring pay levels up -- but of course, social service donors are stretched thin these days.

The real inequity is that state employees doing essentially the same work, in some places for the same SEIU 1199 union, make between $21 and $30 an hour, often with abundant overtime.

Torres, meanwhile, is on Medicaid -- “state medical,” as it’s known -- along with her 11-year-old son because her income qualifies her and her odd shifts make it hard for her to find other work. Why does she stay with it? The hard work is fulfilling, more than serving up greasy food.

That’s not an efficient way to run a state. It shouldn’t have come to the day when replacement workers were on the scene at a huge added cost to taxpayers, but it did.

“Hopefully we’ll get something settled because at the end of the day this is people’s lives,” Torres said. “Clients and workers.”