New London – Unionized workers from Sound Community Services, a non-profit organization serving people dealing with mental and behavioral health issues and addictions, picketed outside Sound on Tuesday afternoon ahead of a planned strike by three days which should start at 6 a.m. Sunday.
Sound employees in SEIU District 1199 New England began strike authorization votes last month, and organizer Kindra Fontes-May said 100% of voters were in favor. She said most of the 73 members of the bargaining unit have voted and it is up to the workers to decide whether they want to extend the strike.
The strike would take place outside Sound’s main office at 21 Montauk Ave., where the picket line took place on Tuesday, she said.
Workers are pushing for wage increases, more affordable health insurance, a Sound pension contribution and better staffing conditions as workers are threatened and attacked by customers.
Sound CEO Gino DeMaio said of the strike, “we have a full program of experienced, non-union workers, managers, all of whom have agreed to join us, and we’ve taken shifts” and “there won’t be any effect on any of the programs,” but he hopes it won’t come to that.
“I’m disappointed this is actually happening,” he said. “I think they really should go to the state legislature and talk to them.”
The union is asking the state to approve an additional 8% increase in funding for the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services to help fund their demands. The state previously allocated a 4% increase in funds for salaries and benefits.
“For the past few decades, state leaders have outsourced public mental health work to nonprofits like Gilead and Sound under the guise of cutting costs,” said District 1199 Chairman Rob Baril. , in a press release. “These services depend on state funding, which has been stagnant for years.”
Gilead Community Services in Middletown has a strike deadline of May 5 at 6 a.m.
Begging to feel supported
Jamese “Jay” Tatum said she started at Sound in 2014 as a recovery specialist and was promoted to residential case manager, earning $17.82 an hour. She said she had to fight just to get a 25 cent raise when she was promoted.
She said she loved what she did and the people she served, but she had also experienced physical and verbal abuse – such as a client pushing her – and said she did not feel supported .
“We deserve more fairness,” said Tatum, 33. “A hell of respect. And we want to feel supported. That’s my biggest thing, I want to feel supported.”
Tatum, who has a 9-month-old baby who stays home with her significant other, said she was “living check after check”.
Case manager Tyischa McIntear, who has worked in healthcare for 10 years and started working at Sound two years ago, said she decided to work at Sound because she was from New London and had heard good things about the work of the agency. She earns $17.13 an hour.
“When I was hired, I had no idea the conditions would be as bad as they were, in terms of not providing us with affordable health care, not compensating us for what we’re worth,” McIntear said. She and Tatum obtain their health insurance through the state; Tatum said she couldn’t afford to pay the $500 a month it would cost to purchase insurance from her employer.
McIntear, 35, said as a single mother of a 15-year-old son, she had to save on food and figure out which bills to pay and when.
“If it weren’t for my family, I would be one of the people Sound serves,” she said, adding that the people she helps make more money than she does.
District 1199 and Sound met for negotiations last week. DeMaio said Sound sent in an offer Friday that would raise wages by $1.78 an hour, but hasn’t heard from the union. Fontes-May said with the latest offer, Sound raised wages by 15 cents but withdrew a previous pension contribution offer, and the union wants to see more movement on wages.
During picket Tuesday, several chants called out DeMaio by name. According to Sound’s Form 990 for the fiscal year ending June 2020, which ProPublica released through its nonprofit Explorer, DeMaio’s reportable compensation from Sound was $232,727. After the chief medical officer and chief financial officer, the next five highest-paid employees earned between $168,353 and $99,568. The total number of people employed in 2019 was 178.
“I took over this agency after a near bankruptcy. I don’t feel bad about the rate I’m earning because I’ve been there a long time, but I’ve always advocated for employees to get more,” DeMaio said. .
He criticized the proposed deal with the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition, saying “if this deal is made with state employees, it will create an even greater disparity between nonprofits” and government employees. the state. He concluded, “We only have what the state gave us, and I don’t really know where any other dollars can come from.”