A tense wait for strike talks as group homes delay moving residents

The vehicles are ready and destinations are set for residents of 200 group homes to move to safe locations ahead of a Friday morning strike of 2,100 workers. All day Thursday, group home operators have changed plans on the fly, pushing back deadlines to relocate residents until the last possible minute.

By mid-day Thursday, Barry Simon, CEO of Oak Hill, which operates 70 of the affected homes, said he’d already twice pushed back plans to relocate 200 residents to nursing homes — from 9 a.m. to noon and then until 3 p.m.

Oak Hill staff, many of whom will be transporting the residents themselves, have been adamant, Simon said, that he hold off a little while longer to avoid what would be a traumatic experience for people with intellectual disabilities who live at the homes.

“Once I pull this trigger, bad things will happen,” Simon said. “This is not going to be good for our participants and that’s what I worry about the most.”

Plans were changing hourly at Journey Found Inc., said CEO Tracey Walker, who said between 20 and 25 residents will have to be transported to live with their families temporarily.

On Thursday, the organization secured five temporary staff but “we’re still 33 people short,” Walker said, adding that administrative staff is scheduled to work double shift and workers would be moving around to various homes to care for residents. In some cases, family members were prepared to come into the homes to care for their loved ones, she said.

The frantic scene played out as District 1199 New England, SEIU, which represents the workers, met with Gov. Ned Lamont’s top aides to negotiate a deal. The union wants terms similar to the $267 million deal brokered last month for nursing homes, mostly by expanding Medicaid payments.

Rob Baril, president of District 1199, summarized the union’s position in a statement Thursday.

“We cannot preserve a labor model for group home long-term care services that relies on poverty wages,” Baril said. “We need to make the same advances that nursing home workers achieved with recent funding allocations: create a pathway to $20 an hour minimum and retirement and provide access to affordable health insurance for group home workers and their families.”

On Wednesday, Lamont said his administration was having “active discussions” with union leaders. “I’d like to think we’re getting close,” he said, to reaching “a really good, fair conclusion.”

But if the two sides can’t come to an agreement, that would result in major disruption to lives of group home residents who rely on relationships with workers and continuity of care.

The situation is also causing “gut-churning anxiety and nausea” for their parents and guardians, David Hadden, chair of Oak Hill’s board of directors, said Wednesday after he and Simon attended a rally held by workers outside the Legislative Office Building.

“The truth of the matter is some of our people, as a result of this transition will have serious behavioral setbacks,” said Hadden. “This will be a traumatic event and they may well have medical setbacks. It’s likely that some of them are going to end up at the hospital, and some of them may not be coming back to our group homes.”

Hadden and his wife had two sons with intellectual disabilities, one of whom was a resident at Oak Hill until he passed away several years ago.

Hadden and Simon said they support the workers’ demands for better pay and benefits. But Oak Hill can’t boost wages for workers without an increase in funding. The bulk of Oak Hill’s workers earn $14.75 an hour, Simon said.

Increasing funding for the private nonprofits that provide the bulk of social services in Connecticut is a major part of budget debate going on in the General Assembly. A budget vote will not come before the strike deadline, however.

Oak Hill pays for the bulk of services through the state-federal Medicaid system. “The last time we got a rate increase,” Simon said, “the iPhone wasn’t even invented yet.”

The other group home operators affected by Friday’s strike deadline are Whole Life Inc. of Stratford, Sunrise Northeast of Hartford, Network Inc. of Andover, and Mosaic in Cromwell.