Union mental health workers who are employed by Sound Community Services started a three-day strike at 6 a.m. on Sunday. They are asking for better conditions at a mental healthcare non-profit in New London.
The union says state leaders have outsourced public mental health work to nonprofits like theirs over the past several decades with the aim of cutting costs.
The mental healthcare workers say they perform lifesaving work, but they think their ability to provide these essential services is being pushed to the brink by staffing shortages and low wages.
"I want to be able to have affordable health insurance and a dignified retirement plan," said Tyischa Macintear, behavioral health homes case manager. "We just want to be able to live and not have to work paycheck to poverty."
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The provider is part of the New England Health Care Employees Union. Specifically, they are demanding higher wages, access to benefits and better staffing conditions. Some workers said they are working multiple jobs because their wages barely allow them to make ends meet.
“One, we do need raises. Our community and the things we do at work, we go above and beyond, but we’re not getting paid for what we do. Not only that, but it’s not affordable for anybody to do what we’re doing right now. There should be more money for anybody who works in this field. This is a hard field. People see the outside of us, but they don’t see the inside of us. Our hearts go into this work every day, but of course, we have no money to show what we do," said Residential Recovery Specialist William King.
Union representatives say providers at Sound Community Services make an average of $15 to $37 an hour. They say during the last five years, workers received a 1% raise.
'We serve a very vulnerable population. And it's very difficult to serve that population when you're concerned about where your next meals are coming from and whether you can pay your bills," said greeter Donavon Powell.
Sound Community Services CEO Gino Demaio said in previous negotiations, the union turned down the offers for raise increases. They continued negotiations Wednesday.
“We did offer $1.78 per hour increase to the union wages. We offered a $1,000 increase to the contribution to health insurance, and we also put something on the table that would start the process of a 401k and an election type of match of some sort. So as early as last Thursday, we actually sent the union another notification of these type of details. We’ve never heard back from them," said Demaio.
He said the nonprofit has between 70 to 80 workers and while about 20 were on strike alongside some local politicians this morning, others were working.
“I respect their rights to strike, of course. I also respect the rights of the people in the union that have chosen not to strike," Demaio said.
"It's time that they stopped putting profit over people," said City Council Member Akil Peck.
Peck joined the union workers on Sunday and has a sister who is a mental healthcare provider.
"I understand what my sister has gone through. I understand the working conditions that she's been subjected to work in. And I understand how hard it is for her to still provide for her self and our family on the wages that she's earning. And it's not fair," Peck added.
The providers are calling on the state to increase funding for the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services by 8%. They say this would help fund their demands for wages, benefits and staffing.
“We want the governor to give us our 8% we deserve it. We do a lot of work. We take care of people here. People with very severe mental health issues and substance abuse," Macintear said.
The strike will be limited to three days. On Tuesday, union members will be in Hartford voicing their concerns to legislators and on Wednesday, they enter negotiations.
On May 5, Gilead Community Services in Middletown is expected to go on strike starting at 6 a.m. Their strike will also be limited to three days.
CEO Dan Osbourne tells us in an email the nonprofit has already offered a compensation increase that would raise wages above a 4% increase, being provided by state funding.
Osbourne said he urges “legislative leaders to use the resources at their disposal to change the pattern of underfunding nonprofit agencies in Connecticut over the last 15 years.”
He said in that time, Gilead received a single 1% increase in funding from the state.
“I have them no problem with them asking for more, but the problem is I can only give what the state has allocated to us," Demaio said.