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300 workers agree to settle group home strike as more loom

September 29, 2021 GMT

More than 300 unionized group home and day program workers on Wednesday called off a threatened strike after settling a new labor contract that workers say will finally allow them to afford health insurance.

Rob Baril, president of the New England Health Care Employees Union, District 1199, SEIU, said he hopes the two-year salary and benefits package reached with Network Human Services, also known as Network Inc., will become a template for other yet-to-be settled labor contracts with group home providers. Hundreds of workers at different agencies across the state are still threatening to walk out if new labor agreements are not reached next month.

“Some of our members have waited over 15 years to get compensated with wages and benefits that truly reward their hard work,” Baril said in a statement. “This contract sets a high bar for other operators to come to the table and give workers a fair chance to improve our lives.”

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While the strike at Network Inc., which provides services to people with developmental disabilities, was called off, about 200 workers are still threatening to strike at Whole Life Inc. on Oct. 5. Also, two additional strike notices were delivered Wednesday to Sunrise Northeast Inc. and Alternative Services-Connecticut Inc., affecting 160 and 100 workers respectively. They’re planning to walk out on Oct. 12.

The union said more strike votes are happening at multiple community group home agencies across the state. Some of the nonprofit agencies, however, have said they’ve been unable to settle contracts because they’re still waiting for additional state funds authorized three months ago to increase wages and benefits for group home workers. Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration has said the money will be provided retroactively.

The agreement announced Wednesday, which relies on the additional Medicaid funding, is effective retroactively to July and expires in March 2023. It includes up to a 90% reduction in health insurance premium costs, an increase in the employer’s pension contribution to 9.5% and wage increases for all workers, according to the union.

The new contract increases the current minimum wage of $14.75 an hour to $17.25 an hour by July 2022. More experienced employees will receive a 5% increase for 2021 and an increase for 2022.

Jennifer Brown, a union member and group home worker for multiple agencies, said she couldn’t afford insurance at Sunrise Northeast or Network because “we don’t make as much as they want to charge for the insurance.” She called the new contract with Network a “great victory” for the workers.

“We work hard, We work the storms. We worked through the pandemic. We’re still working,” she said during an online news conference. “But the thing is, for us to work so hard, the insurance is disgusting. And now, with the victory that we got ... the rate of insurance is going to be better. The pay rate is going to go up. It’s just overwhelming.”