HARTFORD, CT – Health care workers kept a safe distance from each other as they gathered on the north steps of the state Capitol Tuesday night to call on lawmakers to increase their pay and their rights in the workplace.
“Nine months of sacrifice. Nine months of suffering. Nine months of fear. Nine months of anger,” said Rob Baril, president of SEIU District 1199, summing up the feelings of many who attended the rally. “Folks in positions of power have to pay attention.”
He said for nine months they’ve been caring for the elderly and the disabled while at the same time they haven’t been treated like the heroes that they are.
“We’ve been doing it in an environment where everything has been harder than it should have been,” Baril said.
He said they had to fight for Personal Protective Equipment and they’ve had to fight to get paid at the time when the workforce shortage due to COVID has some employers calling in employees with COVID symptoms to come to work.
“Eighteen. Eighteen of our brothers and sisters in 1199 now have lost their lives,” Baril said.
He said he was just notified Tuesday morning of another fatality – a Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services worker who died from COVID.
More than a handful of Democratic lawmakers attended the rally and promised to support a long-term care workers bill of rights and increase in pay. Nursing home workers are expected to see a Medicaid rate increase, but it can’t get there soon enough.
“You know if you work in a nursing home the staffing is way down and it’s worse than it’s ever been,” Baril said. “The workers are burnt to cinders.”
Jennifer Brown, who works for three group home agencies, said she cares for some of the most vulnerable citizens in Connecticut who don’t have the ability to speak for themselves.
“The pandemic has led to some of the worst conditions I have ever seen in this field,” Brown said. “We watch our individuals pass away, scared, separated from their families. We struggle all year to secure proper PPE.”
She said they have worn the same masks week after week “praying that the worn out paper would protect us.”
But “with our pay and benefits being so low our agencies can barely hold onto staff,” Brown said. “This has led the managers to calling people in with active COVID symptoms.”
That’s in addition to many of the workers being unable to purchase health insurance.
“How much are our lives worth?” Brown said.
Rep. Quentin Phipps, D-Middletown, said it’s the least lawmakers can do for the people who take care of their loved ones.
“We still have not treated you in the way that you treat friends, in the way that you treat neighbors,” Phipps said. “We have not treated you the way that we need to treat you.”
Connecticut is facing a budget deficit next fiscal year of more than $640 million. It has $3.1 billion in the rainy day fund to help close the gap. But it won’t be enough to stop the red ink the following year and lawmakers are going to be asked to make some adjustments when they convene for the 2021 legislative session. The Office of Fiscal Analysis estimates the deficit for 2022 will be about $2 billion and it’s estimated to grow by another $2 billion in 2023. Gov. Ned Lamont will be asked to present a two-year budget in February that closes that two-year, $4 billion deficit.
Baril said they need to protect workers’ speech in the workplace, and their pay. He said there’s a group home agency that’s offering health insurance to its workers for more than $5,000 a month. These are workers who make less than $17 an hour and many work multiple jobs for multiple agencies to make ends meet.
“We need a livable wage. We’re out there risking our lives, risking our families lives,” Baril said. “$15 an hour was a hell of a fight to get there, but now it’s about to be the minimum wage. We need $20 an hour minimum rate.”
He said as health care workers they should also have access to affordable health insurance.
“These are health care workers who get up every single day to take care of the sick, exposing themselves to this virus, you don’t have health insurance yourself, that is a crime,” Baril said.
He said Connecticut’s wealthy, who have seen their wealth increase during the pandemic, should be able to contribute a little bit more so the state can increase its Medicaid rates “so that we can be protected and we can have health insurance.”
He said at the moment restaurant owners get fined more than health care facilities if they aren’t observing COVID rules.
“That doesn’t make sense,” Baril said. “You’re going to fine Popeye’s but you’re not going to fine a health care facility? Workers can’t get protected.”