Community services

The Day – Mental Health Workers Hold Strike Votes

Middletown – Unionized workers at Gilead Community Services in Middletown and Sound Community Services in New London – two agencies that serve people with mental health issues, behavioral health issues and addictions – have begun voting to allow strike, but hope to be able to reach a contractual agreement with their employers.

More than 30 workers from SEIU District 1199 New England gathered outside Gilead midday Friday, holding signs and chanting, “What do we want? Contracts ! When do we want it? Now ! and “Dignity, respect, more money in our checks!”

Gilead extended a contract that expired in 2019 while Sound has been operating without a contract since 2019. Employees are pushing for higher wages, more affordable health care and retirement benefits. Union members are also asking lawmakers to approve an 8% increase in public funding for mental health services.

“Workers are getting ready to take the next steps,” said Kindra Fontes-May, elected organizer of 1199. She said the union likely won’t send out strike notices until the end of the month, and if there is had a strike, it would be one day. in April. It was unclear how long the vote to authorize the strike would take place.

Friday’s rally was mostly made up of Gilead workers, but Kwan Jenkins came to represent Sound, as he works second shift while others were working at the time of the rally. Jenkins is a Senior Residential Recovery Specialist for the Bent Crandall Program, an 18-month residential program for people with both mental health and addiction diagnoses.

Jenkins, a New London resident who has worked at Sound for three years, said he earned $15.87 an hour and other residential employees earned $15.37.

“It’s hard to make rent, gas prices are going up, everything but our salary,” he said.

While Jenkins, 44, benefits from his wife’s health insurance, he worries about single employees earning too much to be covered by HUSKY health insurance through the state, but not enough to pay for insurance at work. . The workers are also looking for a pension or at least a matching 401(k), he said, and negotiations are expected to continue next week.

With so many job openings, some are wondering: why not leave and go somewhere else, with higher pay and better benefits? Jenkins said that mindset distracts from the people they serve, who are impacted by high turnover rates.

“People who come and go in their lives repeat the traumatic experiences they have had,” he said.

Jenkins also loves her work, saying, “We have the chance to inspire and bring change to the lives of men and women that most of society doesn’t want to face, and some families don’t even want to. cope because it may be too much.”

Fontes-May said the union has about 80 workers at Sound and 85 at Gilead.

The union said in a media advisory that due to “dangerous staff shortages and record turnover”, patients at both agencies “with serious and complex medical conditions are not receiving the specialist care they need. need, creating unsafe working conditions where (health care) providers are stalked, threatened and attacked by customers.”

Sound and Gilead respond

Gino DeMaio, CEO of Sound Community Services, has repeatedly stressed that he can only give employees what Sound gets from the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.

He said he wanted to create a 401(k) match and increase health benefits, but what the union is asking for would cost Sound $1 million a year annualized. He said the state-allocated 4% increase — which Sound recently received — for salaries and benefits amounts to less than half.

“I’m so frustrated, because we’re not valued to the degree that we should be valued,” DeMaio said, “so we can’t pass that on to our employees,” whom he said he respects and admires. really.

He thinks the union’s tactic is that if they create a crisis, the state will step in to help, but he doesn’t think Sound is big enough for that to happen.

Sound and 1199 just started trading last week, and DeMaio said when they continue next week, “hopefully we can give them the data and they can really understand the pickle we’re in.”

Dan Osborne, CEO of Gilead Community Services, said entry-level case managers with bachelor’s degrees made $16.25 an hour, “what we recognize is not enough, that’s not what ‘they deserve”. He said it wasn’t about agencies that don’t want to increase their employees, but “agencies that are held back by state funding contracts, that make us choose between raising salaries and closing the programs”.

Osborne said Gilead has only received a 1% increase in state funding over the past 15 years, and Gilead is calling on the legislature and governor to provide more funding.

The agency is engaged in negotiations with 1199 and has offered a pay raise that would raise salaries above the 4% increase that state funding sources have allocated but not yet provided, Osborne said. . He said Gilead offered several different funding models, such as differentials based on longevity and type of program.

“Obviously today’s picket is at 222 Main Street Extension, but it really needs to be heard at 210 Capitol Ave. in Hartford,” Osborne said. “That’s my hope is that it’s something that gets the attention of legislative leaders.”

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