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Group home workers strike in New London and across Connecticut

Oct. 12—NEW LONDON — Group home workers employed by Sunrise Northeast went on strike at 6 a.m. Tuesday, calling for affordable health insurance, wage increases and a pension.

District 1199 New England previously reached agreements with group home operators Network Inc. and Whole Life ahead of its Oct. 5 strike deadline, and the union on Monday afternoon rescinded the Oct. 12 strike notice it had in place for ASI.

But it hasn't reached an agreement with Sunrise. The strike notices came despite the state authorizing $184 million in June for wage and benefit increases for group home workers.

Workers formed picket lines outside group homes in New London, Hartford, Danielson and Columbia, which serve developmentally disabled people. Among Sunrise's group homes in 17 cities and towns across Connecticut are ones in New London, Waterford and Old Lyme.

Standing outside the Montauk Avenue group home as the sun came up, Uncasville resident Elizabeth Esterly said she has been working at Sunrise for 25 years and has been fighting for a pension her whole career. The 48-year-old said she had four jobs for most of her young life.

Esterly said the residents of the Montauk Avenue home were moved elsewhere Monday night, and management was staffing the home where she works in Waterford.

As she and others waved yellow SEIU flags and held signs reading "ON STRIKE 1199 / BE FAIR TO THOSE WHO CARE," a cyclist rode by and shouted out, "Stay strong, unions!"

"I started at $10.67 almost 26 years ago, which was good then. That was amazing," Esterly said. She now makes $17.54 an hour — the same wage as Sunrise worker Alexandra Martin, who has been an employee for 10 years, and the same amount Sunrise is advertising in a job posting for direct support professionals.

"What's sad is I work in the health care business and I can't afford health insurance," said Martin, 36. She added about the COVID-19 pandemic, "I risked my life, and I legit am bargaining for health insurance. It's unfair and it's unjust."

Dawn Frey, executive director of Sunrise Northeast, said Tuesday morning in an email statement on behalf of the organization, "Sunrise Northeast is committed to reaching a contract that is sustainable and gives our employees wage increases and benefits." She added that Sunrise is awaiting decisions on requests it submitted to the state last week seeking additional funds for health care and retirement.

"We've tentatively agreed to wage increases and remain committed to negotiating, including over some Union proposals we just received last week," the statement said. "Our focus remains on reaching a fair contract that enables us to continue the good work our organization has done in Connecticut for years."

District 1199 spokesperson Pedro Zayas said Tuesday evening that there were no negotiations Tuesday, and pickets will continue 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. until an agreement is reached.

Union President Rob Baril said in a news release Monday evening that most of the 149 union workers with Sunrise make less than $17 an hour, and monthly premiums for family insurance coverage are $6,000.

Since workers can't afford that, they turn elsewhere for coverage. Esterly said she is on Access Health, the state health insurance marketplace, while Sunrise employee Lynette Singleton said she's on her husband's insurance.

But Singleton, 55, said she is fighting for her co-workers, many of whom are single mothers who have to make under a certain amount of money to receive social services benefits. She has been working for Sunrise since 1999 and also is making $17.54 an hour.

"I've always worked two jobs, because we live in Connecticut," she said with a laugh, "and it's not a cheap place to live."

The jobs of group home workers include getting residents dressed and showered, and providing them medication, and Esterly said clients can sometimes be combative. Workers emphasized they love their clients but want respect from their employer, and talked about the difficulties they've faced with staff shortages.

A few elected officials and candidates came to the picket line to show their support. First came New London City Council candidate Martha Marx, who soon was joined by state Rep. Joe de la Cruz, D-Groton, and New London City Councilor James Burke.

As a visiting nurse, Marx was talking to The Day about how she took care of a couple of 1199 workers who contracted COVID-19 on the job — only to soon find that one of them was there on the picket line.