Mental health workers prepare for three-day strikes in New London, Middletown

A senior residential recovery specialist at a behavioral health clinic in New London joins dozens of colleagues on Sunday morning in a strike over low pay and unsafe staff conditions.

Kwan Jenkins, 44, has worked with Sound Community Services for three years now. He never received a raise.

“I’ve been at the same rate since I started,” he says, “less than $15.40 an hour.

The workers also have other complaints. They say they can’t afford health insurance and they don’t have a retirement plan. Management does not discipline abusive customers and instead recycles them through different programs, he said.

Unionized employees of Sound Community Services are going on strike starting Sunday morning for higher wages, benefits and better staffing conditions. A separate strike is also planned at Gilead Community Services in Middletown starting May 5. Both strikes will be limited to three days, according to the District 1199 Service Employees International Union.

But workers’ frustration doesn’t just come from their employers. These mental health workers are also calling on the state to provide an additional 8% increase in funding for the state’s Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services during this legislative session. This would help fund their demands for fair wages, benefits and adequate staffing, they said.

“The 8% will go a long way to correcting low standards in the area of ​​mental health and will help workers get higher wages in their contracts,” said Kindra Fontes-May, an elected organizer from union 1199. The workers “ will continually advocate” for this increase over the next two weeks, Fontes-May said.

Salaries for workers at the Sound and Gilead Community Centers range from $15 to $18 per hour. The majority of Sound workers earn $15.37 an hour, while most Gilead workers earn $15.06 an hour, according to the union.

The union proposed, using a combination of additional state funding and employer compensation, a path to $20 an hour by raising minimum rates. The proposal also creates “seniority step increments” with the ability to negotiate higher wages in the future, the union said.

Gino DeMaio, CEO of Community Sound Services, said it just wasn’t affordable for his nonprofit. DeMaio said the claims would cost about $1.2 million a year, and the organization only received an additional $323,000 from cost-of-living adjustments.

“That would basically put us out of business,” he told Hearst Connecticut Media on Friday. The demands of the union and what the organization can give are “light years apart”, he said.

“We have only received a limited amount of money from budget appropriations,” he added.

Sound countered with a $1.78 per person raise, increased health care contributions, and automatic enrollment in 401k plans, and the nonprofit would match what it could. DeMaio said he did not receive a response.

Gilead management offered wage increases above the 4% offered to state employees on Friday.

Although Fontes-May said Gilead’s counter is a good start, “the proposal is limited in what it can achieve and is hampered by the fact that it prevents workers from negotiating additional raises in the future. “.

“Inflation, gas and rents are rising every year, but mental health salaries have historically remained stagnant,” she said. “The ability of workers to fight for more is key to raising standards across the state and lifting workers out of poverty.”

Dan Osborne, CEO of Gilead Community Services, also attributed state funding to a problem.

“In the past 15 years, however, we have only received one 1% raise from the state,” he said in a statement. “As a result, we have not been able to provide our staff with the steady raises they deserve.”

Osborne called on the state legislature to adequately fund all nonprofits facing similar challenges.

“That’s why I stand with our staff, the CT Nonprofit Alliance and all of our member agencies in urging our legislative leaders to use the resources at their disposal to change the model of nonprofit agency underfunding. profit in Connecticut for the past 15 years,” he added.

Rob Baril, the president of Union 1199, said the state has contracted out public mental health work to nonprofits like Sound and Gilead for decades “under the guise of cutting costs.”

“These services depend on state funding, which has been stagnant for years,” he continued. “We’ve reached a point where we don’t have enough resources to run these programs and support staff.

“Cutting corners is not the way to improve mental health services and care for hundreds of vulnerable black, brown and white people in our communities,” he said.

Union officials said that even in years without state funding increases, “management at both agencies gave each other raises.”

“When we come to the bargaining table, and year after year they claim to be poor when it comes time to pass on similar increases to staff, you can imagine what that does to workers who put their bodies on the line every day. “, Fontes- said May. “The years when the boss was offering pennies to staff as he kept increasing his dollars – done.”

Jenkins, Sound’s leading residential salvage specialist, said “our bosses won’t even give us a penny.”

“I’m doing this job because we’re like the only family some of these men and women have.” he said. “When I walk through the doors every day in my program, my clients light up when they see me.”

Jenkins prides itself on treating its customers with respect, showing compassion and love, and talking to them instead of talking to them.

“All they want is to be treated with decency and respect,” he said. “We have to love the work we do. We don’t want to be millionaires, we just want to be compensated fairly.

From June 2020 to June 2021, Sound Community Services recorded revenue of $11.1 million, of which nearly $8.7 million came from government grants, according to the Sound Community Services 2021 Audit Report on the non-profit explorer of ProPublica.

Although specific salaries were not available in the audit report, it indicated that payroll accounted for approximately 70% of the organization’s $10.46 million in expenses. The organization paid nearly $6.28 million in salaries and wages, of which $1 million went to “management and general,” the audit report said.

The previous year, Sound Community Services reported $10.69 million in revenue and $10.5 million in expenses, according to Sound Community Services tax returns from July 2019 to June 2020.

That year, eight people, including the CEO, collectively won $1.24 million. The organization paid a total of $7.5 million in salaries, benefits and other compensation to 178 employees.

For Gilead, from July 2019 to June 2020, the organization said it paid nearly $10.83 million in salaries and allowances to its 327 reported employees, according to its latest tax return available in the nonprofit Explorer. by ProPublica.

Among the top earners, the tax return shows the CEO earned more than $156,000 from Gilead, and other top earners received between $129,000 and $240,000 from related organizations.

The organization earned $15.1 million in that fiscal year and spent $14.49 million, according to the tax return.

The strike at Sound Community Services in New London begins at 6am on Sunday. Sound workers are expected to resume negotiations on Wednesday after the three-day strike. Gilead workers are also expected to resume negotiations after their strike the week of May Day. If they cannot reach agreements, workers can send another strike notice or take other action.