Group home agreement avoids health care worker strike

Rob Baril, president of SEIU 1199NE, which represents 25,000 health care workers in Connecticut, says conditions are untenable in nursing homes in the coronavirus crisis.

Rob Baril, president of SEIU 1199NE, which represents 25,000 health care workers in Connecticut, says conditions are untenable in nursing homes in the coronavirus crisis.

Dan Haar / Hearst Connecticut Media

The state’s largest health care worker union reached a settlement with one group home, averting a possible strike over wages, health insurance costs and retirement, leadership said Wednesday.

SEIU 1199 New England announced last week it had delivered strike notices to two group home agencies, Whole Life and Network Inc. The union called for better pay, affordable health insurance and pensions, and gave the two organizations until Oct. 5 before they began striking.

The union reached a settlement agreement with Network Inc. on Monday, SEIU 1199 President Rob Baril said during a press conference.

Baril hailed the agreement with Network Inc. Wednesday, saying he hopes the settlement will become a “contract standard” for workers in the union.

“We’re obviously hopeful that that becomes a settlement pattern for Whole Life and then for the two additional agencies where we sent strike notices today,” Baril said.

The terms of the settlement gives workers at Network Inc. a minimum wage of $16.50 this year, increased to $17.25 next year. It also includes a defined benefit pension plan and what Baril described as “significant” reductions in out-of-pocket costs for health insurance.

Other concessions included giving workers Juneteenth as a holiday “in recognition of racial justice concerns that some of our members had,” Baril said.

“It’s an overwhelmingly female workforce — white working class women, Black and brown women, folks who as a labor of love get up every single day to care for those who cannot care for themselves,” along with those with intellectual disabilities, Baril added.

Baril said he is “hopeful” for a settlement with Whole Life, but declined discussions in detail.

While touting success with Network Inc., union officials said Wednesday that they had filed strike notices with two additional group home operators in the state, ASI and Sunrise Northeast. The deadline to reach an agreement is Oct. 12.

Workers at Network Inc., many of whom had not seen a raise in over a decade, welcomed the news that an agreement had been reached.

“The victory is just overwhelming,” said Jennifer Brown, who works for both Sunrise Northeast and Network Inc. She described a 15-hour round of negotiating that finally led to Monday’s agreement. “We work hard, we work through storms— we worked through the pandemic. We’re still working,” she said.

The issue with working conditions had been exacerbated by staffing shortages predate the pandemic, Baril said.

Sherry Nash said mandatory overtime work has made her miss holidays, her son’s birthday party and even a recent funeral.

“That’s what we’re getting for overtime,” she said. “It’s not always elective overtime, it’s because they say you have to.”

Nash, a Network worker, said the agreement reached Monday would allow her to live comfortably for some time.

“From personal experience, I know what it’s like to go to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription for my son and have to walk away without getting that prescription because I don’t make enough to cover both the premiums and the prescriptions,” she said.

Evelyn Addy, whose employer was recently acquired by Network, said she’s gone 15 years without a raise. “We work so hard, we give medication, we cook, we do everything because they are really like our family,” she said.

Baril said the state “did its job” by providing the industry with an additional $184 million in funding.

“The process has been the agencies have to submit to the state what their cost needs are, so non-union agencies can go ahead and do that,” he said. Unionized agencies have to meet with the union first and talk about “what workers need,” he said.