Community services

After a three-day strike, workers at Sound Community Services sent out another strike notice. This time it’s indefinite.

Tobias Atwater, a recovery specialist, encourages people driving on Montauk Avenue to honk their horns as they pass Union 1199NE members chanting slogans Tuesday, April 19, 2022, while participating in a line of Information picket outside Sound Community Services in New London. After a three-day strike, workers at Sound Community Services sent out another strike notice. This time it’s indefinite. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

New London – Unionized behavioral health and addictions workers at Sound Community Services may have ended their three-day strike at 6 a.m. Wednesday, but they aren’t done fighting: They have issued another strike notice, effective May 18 at 6 a.m.

This time, the notice is not for a three-day strike but for an indefinite period.

Kindra Fontes-May, organizer of SEIU District 1199 New England, said the notice was issued just before negotiations resumed Wednesday night when management sent in its proposal. She said the latest offer included some move on health insurance but none on wages. The bargaining unit represents 73 workers in Sound.

Sound CEO Gino DeMaio said management is offering an $8,000 employer contribution to health insurance, up from the previous offer of $7,000, but not the $9,000. that unionized workers are looking for. Sound is still offering hourly wage increases of $1.78. With residential employees earning $15.37 an hour and case managers in the $17 range, the union is looking for a path to $20 an hour.

Union members met virtually with some of Sound’s management team and a lawyer representing Sound. DeMaio said, “I don’t even come downstairs to listen to the rhetoric that comes and goes,” but rather, people report to him and caucus in his office. He said at this point they’ll likely look to hire a federal mediator because “I feel like we’re about to hit a stalemate.”

So, did the three-day strike have an impact?

Fontes-May said she believes “management understands the power of workers,” while DeMaio said it was disruptive to customers and “reinforces my leadership team’s commitment to ensuring that no one don’t leave unserved”. DeMaio said his team debriefed on Friday and would plan next steps on Monday for future coverage of the strike, if any.

DeMaio and District 1199 are pushing for more state money.

“Workers are really ready for Connecticut to take them seriously. Mental health has been ignored for decades,” Fontes-May said. “Their services they provide have never been more needed than during the pandemic.”

Governor Ned Lamont and legislative leaders announced a budget deal last Wednesday, which they expect to approve before the legislative session adjourns next Wednesday.

The budget includes $52 million in public funds and $20 million in U.S. federal Rescue Plan Act funding for agencies that support people with behavioral and addictions issues.

But Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, who chairs the Legislature Appropriations Committee, said securing funds was a problem. She said after the current budget passed last June, some residences weren’t told what they were getting until January or February.

“You can’t let your best players go”

Sound workers were picketing Montauk Avenue on Tuesday morning, before heading to a rally in Hartford.

Darling Gonzalez, a community case manager, said the eight hours a day he works is never enough, having “30 clients, each with a different need, each with a different diagnosis, each requiring more attention than the ‘other”. He is dealing with a client who hits him. And as the only bilingual person in his department, he is also in demand for communications with Spanish-speaking clients or people seeking services.

“There’s already a stigma in the Latinx community with mental health, that they’re embarrassed or don’t want to get the help they need,” he said.

Gonzalez said many clients overall lack support from family or friends; Sound workers are all they have.

Donavon Powell, a greeter who welcomes people to the building, said: ‘there is a lot of frustration being expressed as this population is used to people abandoning them and leaving them’. But workers are leaving due to high workload and burnout.

“We are a team,” Gonzalez said. “We are a sports team. You cannot let your best players go for free, no matter what, knowing what they bring to the table.”

Gonzalez has a bachelor’s degree in human services and plans to start a master’s program in the fall semester to become a clinician.

Natalie Crino said she had a master’s degree in kinesiology, or the study of how the human body moves, but earned $17.13 working as a case manager. She has worked in healthcare for more than 10 years and says she wants to make sure her clients are happy, healthy and safe.

“I’m tired,” she said Tuesday. “I have clients that I have to take care of, but I also have to take care of myself.”

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