Public healthcare workers with 1199NE SEIU held a press conference Wednesday raising the urgent need to fill vacancies in state agencies, pointing to newly-released April numbers showing a record 1,137 state workers notified the state they will retire. As Connecticut facilities are already understaffed and demand for care skyrockets, state workers are calling on Governor Lamont to immediately address this crisis by filling 2,216 vacant positions across state healthcare agencies and prepare for a possible 1,600 additional upcoming vacancies from retirements. These vacancies put agencies in danger of having to shut down healthcare services Connecticut residents rely on – some facilities are already having to turn away people who need lifesaving care.
SEIU 1199NE released a retirement dashboard during the press conference, providing a by-the-numbers look at the scope of the state’s staffing crisis and how it is compromising care for Connecticut residents and negatively impacting Black and brown communities.
During the press conference, healthcare workers from some of the hardest-hit facilities shared heartbreaking accounts of their experiences trying to provide quality care while dealing with deteriorating conditions and dangerous understaffing. Michele Daniels, who provides addiction services at Connecticut Valley Hospital, described how 350 vacancies at Connecticut Valley have led to rehab units being shut down and hundreds of patients waiting for care they desperately need.
“We are going through the largest mental health and addictions crisis our state has ever seen. Meanwhile, our Addictions Services Division was totally decimated due to Covid and the chronic short staffing that predated the pandemic,” said Daniels. “Without units open, more and more Connecticut residents go without life-saving addictions treatment. We not only need to recruit and retain staff but to do so urgently, in order for us as a state to provide for fellow neighbors who are suffering.”
For months, providers and advocates have been raising the alarm about the state’s failure to fill what is now more than 2,200 existing vacancies throughout Connecticut’s public health system. During the press conference, SEIU 1199NE members outlined a series of demands for the state, including calling on Governor Lamont to commit to filling 1,000 vacant positions by August 1 of this year and 1,500 positions by October 1 of this year.
Staff in these facilities provide care to some of the state’s most vulnerable residents, and during the press conference, they raised the pain it has caused to watch patients in need go without care while they and their co-workers are pushed to the brink of exhaustion trying to keep up with demand.
“[My work provides] services to individuals with developmental disabilities and their families. I’ve worked within DDS as a state employee for over thirty years and I have never seen the staffing crisis this horrific,” said Yvonne Kingwood, Supervising Developmental Services Worker at Lower Fairfield Center. “When we don’t have adequate staff, our individuals must see other people that are not familiar to them, which can cause a significant increase in behavioral issues. We have seen over the years how DDS state services have been dismantled. We are going to be facing a massive retirement wave of over 700 employees within DDS. How is it not an urgent priority for the state? Lives are at stake.”
Failure to Fill Vacancies Doubly Harms Connecticut’s Communities of Color
Recent research demonstrates that public jobs, including those in mental health and addiction treatment, create a pathway to the middle class and provide living wages for Black and brown communities. Unfilled vacancies are not only detrimental to patients’ well-being, but also cut good jobs for people who provide this care– predominantly Black and brown healthcare workers and women.
“With an historic 41% of our staff at Capitol Region eligible for retirement, this will hit our Black and brown clients on one end and the predominant Black and brown workforce that provides a culturally holistic approach to these lifesaving services on the other,” said Sonja Morton, a licensed clinical social worker at Capitol Region Mental Health Center. “By not urgently filling these positions, the state is cutting not only the critical services that the most mentally ill individuals in our Black and brown communities rely on, but also the foundation of Black and Latino middle-class employment.”
In the past the state of Connecticut has been a force for improving pay equity. Now, by failing to properly fund public health jobs, the state is doing the opposite. Connecticut’s inaction threatens to exacerbate the existing pay discrepancy between white workers and Black and brown workers in Connecticut. In the public sector, Black workers make 94.4% as much as their white peers, while in the private sector it’s just 66.7%. Speakers at the conference explained how unfilled state positions represent thousands of lost opportunities for Connecticut’s workers of color, while impacting Black and brown residents in need of critical care.
State Representative Quentin Williams shared his experience growing up in a household led by his mother, a Black woman who was a healthcare provider at Connecticut Valley Hospital. “State jobs are essential for the advancement of Black families like mine. I don’t know if I would be here without the influence and support of my mother, who worked for the state as a healthcare provider for 30+ years,” said Williams. “I have seen firsthand how challenging that work is, and when providers like my mother are making clear demands for help, our state owes it to them to listen.”
Allies from the Connecticut Worker Center and the Connecticut Women’s Education and Legal Fund echoed providers’ concerns around the devastating impacts of cuts to publicly-funded healthcare services on Black, brown, and immigrant communities.
“Through years of struggle, women workers and workers of color have won higher labor standards so they can make enough to support their families,” said Janee Woods Weber, Executive Director of the Connecticut Women’s Education and Legal Fund. “We cannot stand by and watch years of progress come to a halt. We know our state has the resources to fill the vacant positions in the public healthcare system, and as a matter of racial, economic, and gender justice, our leaders must commit to doing it.”
Over 100 SEIU 1199NE members and supporters joined the press conference in solidarity, rallying around demands for state legislators to immediately staff open positions. Speakers emphasized Governor Lamont’s responsibility to make a commitment to equity and to the Black and brown families and women across Connecticut who provide public healthcare by filling all 2,216 vacancies and preparing to fill up to 1,600 additional vacancies from retirements.
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