Dan Haar: 12 years, no group home raises? Too long
The bathroom has been a refuge for Pamella Reid-Johnson over the years, what she calls her best outlet.
“You don’t want your kids to see you break down and cry,” she said Monday.
Sometimes there was no way to stop the tears, working three jobs and still barely making ends meet as a single mother in Ansonia when her children, now 24 and 27, were in school.
In her trade — working with developmentally disabled people in private group homes and day programs — the pay remains a couple or a few bucks over the minimum wage for most workers.
Now she and 2,500 of her fellow SEIU Healthcare 1199 union members have said, “enough.” The state will pay for raises for the first time in a dozen years, or they will strike.
It has gone on long enough. These are not state workers making $21 an hour or more, plus great benefits. They’re some of the most economically abused employees in the state, working for private, mostly nonprofit companies that rely on state contracts — with outlays that have actually declined by about 3 percent overall since 2006.
These are real declines, not declines after inflation. Thirty-six percent of the direct-care workers rely on some form of state aid, according to SEIU 1199 — so taxpayers are paying for failing to pay. Turnover is climbing as some make under $11 an hour and many make under $13.
Reid-Johnson, 48, who grew up in Bridgeport, says she always stayed off public assistance. Sometimes bills went unpaid, but that wasn’t the worst part of it, not by a longshot.
“I was never there for my kids when they got out of school when they did their homework, when they played on the basketball team. I had to rely on other people,” she said. “You want to sit down and eat dinner with your kids and laugh and see how their day was. I can’t do that.”
On a video produced by SEIU 1199, part of a new ad campaign, she said she loves her job and her clients. “When they hurt, I hurt.” But she added, “My kids grew up with me just being at work, not being with them. That’s horrible.”
Some of the worst days were when Reid-Johnson, a union delegate, would testify at the state Capitol, year after year. “For these people to say no to us, that hurts so bad.”
In an era of perpetual fiscal meltdown, community-based, private group home workers — largely, like Reid-Johnson, women of color — are far from the only people hearing lawmakers say no. But they’re part of an outsourced social services ecosystem that’s near collapse. For decades, it’s been politically easy for the state to tell them to go away, do more with less.
Reid-Johnson works at a day program in Seymour for Hartford-based Oak Hill Inc., the largest of nine private agencies that, together, operate some 250 unionized group homes and day programs for developmentally disabled people. Last month SEIU 1199 workers at those facilities authorized a strike. The union informed the agencies they would walk off the job at 6 a.m. on April 18, this Wednesday.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy intervened, persuading union President David Pickus to delay the strike long enough for him to try to bolster the $1 billion state programs by another $60 million (half from federal Medicaid reimbursement if approved) before the General Assembly closes for the season on May 9.
At about $100,000 to $125,000 per client per year, the private homes are still a cheaper than state-owned homes and certainly far less than Southbury Training School, which remains active with an aging population.
But for Barry Simon, the Oak Hill CEO, it’s already too late to save some services. His agency, with 1,400 employees in community-based programs, 800 of whom were set to strike, has already closed several facilities in the last four years, including two day programs — all while the waiting list for services grows.
Some agencies have exited the state altogether, Simon said. Even when there were increases years ago, they were 1 percent at best. Now it’s a crisis, with wages in retail and fast food finally rising and the agencies barely able to hire as workers leave.
“These issues are issues that people love to talk about but the union is asking to see some action,” Simon said Monday.
Malloy and Democratic lawmakers “have touted this session as a session of fairness,” Simon noted. Other than five-year step increases, “Our wages have not been adjusted by the state since the minimum wage was $7.65 an hour.”
Sources at the Capitol say there’s wide support for a boost this year. The betting is that something will happen, if not the whole $60 million, which would bring raises and a minimum level of about $14.75 an hour for the 14,000 affected workers in the state, most of them not in unions.
Reid-Johnson figures she’ll join other union members at the Capitol Wednesday. Maybe this time she won’t need the bathroom.
She still works a second job doing elderly home care and lots of overtime but she’s one of the fortunate ones, making $18.63 an hour at the day program after 18 years.
And her two children? “They could have went the wrong way and they didn’t,” she said thankfully. In fact, they followed her path. Her daughter, the eldest, manages a group home and her son works in one, too, along with belonging to the National Guard. Both live with Reid-Johnson in West Haven.
The bad news: Reid-Johnson’s Seymour program is set to close in the next few weeks, very likely leaving the clients stuck in their group homes all day. She lights up, talking about the activities they enjoy in a large group.
“There’s a lot of laughter,” she said, “and now it’s eliminated.”