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Unions Fight Privatization of Group Homes

HARTFORD (CN) — Two union locals have sued Connecticut, claiming it can't privatize group homes run for the disabled by the Department of Developmental Services without negotiating with the SEIU unions.

The Connecticut State Employees Association, SEIU Local 2001 and New England Health Care Employees Union District 1199, SEIU sought an injunction on Thursday in Superior Court to stop the privatization from moving forward until negotiations are completed.

Department of Development Services Commission Morna Murray announced in August that the state would convert 30 group homes to private operation by Jan. 1, 2017. The agency also closed two regional centers in Meriden and Stratford. The plan is expected to save the agency $42 million in 2017 and $70 million in 2018.

But for families who have members in state care, it's about more than dollars and cents.

Jane Vasseur of Enfield, whose brother Billy is cared for by workers at Grey Pond group home in Simsbury, said the staff there has become his family.

"We're grateful that he's had the same staff with him for so long," Vasseur said. "We're grateful that the state of Connecticut pays them a living wage so they can take care of their families while they're taking care of ours."

She also said the timing couldn't be worse. It will be happening around the holidays.

Juanita Dee, a nurse who visits the state-run group homes on a daily basis, said the public is being misled into believing the cost savings are worth it. "These conversions are detrimental to the people we serve," she said. "Their quality of care will be compromised due to these conversions."

Dee said the staff at state-run homes have relationships with their clients, because the state pays them a living wage, which allows them to stay long enough for the bonds to form.

"These staff earn a living wage, have medical benefits, and retirement provisions," Dee said. "They have a desire to stay at their position and have a reason to make a daily commitment to the individuals they serve."

Dee said that private group homes often do not allow such connections to form because the wages are lower and benefits are scarce or nonexistent, which leads to high staff turnover.

"This does not allow individuals in a group home to foster communication or develop long lasting, trusting relationships," Dee said.

David Pickus, president of SEIU 1199 New England, represents workers in the public and private sector. He said workers in the private sector, even if represented by a union, are still fighting to get to $15 an hour, while most entry-level state jobs begin at $18 an hour.

The Connecticut Community Nonprofit Alliance, which represents private, nonprofit community providers, disagrees with the union.

"The high quality of care already being delivered by private providers to thousands of individuals with some of the most challenging and complex needs is equal, if not superior, to state facilities," said Gian-Carl Casa, president and CEO of the Community Nonprofit Alliance. "And the lower cost of private care could allow the state to provide services for many more families who are languishing on waiting lists."

Casa said he understands that change is difficult, but for the union to suggest that only state employees can deliver quality care is "simply false, and ignores the fact that private providers already deliver care to the majority of individuals receiving state-supported services."

In Connecticut 94 percent of the 16,742 people with intellectual disabilities the DDS supports receive services from community providers; fewer than 1,000 receive care in state-run homes; 15,000 receive care in nonprofit homes.

Caregivers and the unions say it's not fair to put the clients, who will suffer, in the middle. That's why they asked the court to tell DDS to stop moving forward with a plan until the unions can negotiate with the administration.

Pickus said the contract his employees have with the state expired on June 30, but has been extended. He said the does not allow for the services to be unilaterally privatized.

The a5-page lawsuit calls that a "prohibited practice." The union already filed a prohibited practice complaint with the state Board of Labor Relations and seeks a court injunction to stop the privatization from moving forward.

"Laying off bargaining unit members and contracting out services threatens to irreversibly eliminate DDS' capacity to deliver those services because the work will have been wholly privatized and the individuals the employees care for will have settled into new homes and/or adapted to new caretakers," the lawsuit states.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's administration said it needs to make the transition because of economic reality.

"We deeply respect collective bargaining and are confident that our actions are not only warranted, but lawful and proper," his spokeswoman Kelly Donnelly said.

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