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

A lead residential recovery specialist at a behavioral health clinic in New London is joining dozens of colleagues Sunday morning in a strike against low wages and unsafe staffing conditions.

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

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

Workers have other complaints as well. They say they can’t afford health insurance and don’t have retirement plans. Management does not discipline abusive clients and instead recycles them through different programs, he said.

Union employees for Sound Community Services are going on strike starting Sunday morning for increased wages, benefits and improved staffing conditions. A separate strike is also scheduled 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 the workers’ frustration doesn’t just lie with their employers. These mental health workers are also calling on the state to provide an additional 8 percent increase in funding to the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services 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 towards rectifying the low standards in the mental health field and help the workers achieve higher wages in their contracts,” said Kindra Fontes-May, an elected organizer with the 1199 union. Workers will be “continually advocating” for this increase in the next two weeks, Fontes-May said.

Workers’ wages at Sound and Gilead community centers range from $15 to $18 an hour. The majority of Sound workers make $15.37 an hour, while most Gilead workers make $15.06 an hour, according to the union.

The union has proposed, using a combination of additional state funding and compensation from the employer, a pathway to $20 an hour by increasing the minimum rates. The proposal also creates “seniority step increases” with the opportunity to negotiate higher wages in the future, the union said.

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

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

“We’ve only been given so much money from appropriations from the budget,” he added.

Sound has countered with a $1.78 raise per person, an increase in contributions to healthcare costs and automatic enrollment in 401k plans, and the nonprofit would match what it could. DeMaio said he has not received an answer.

Gilead management has proposed wage increases above the 4 percent offered to state employees Friday.

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

“Inflation, gas, and rent go up every year, but wages in the mental health field have historically remained stagnant,” she said. “The ability for workers to fight for more is key to raising standards across the state and lifting workers out of poverty.”

Dan Osborne, the CEO of Gilead Community Services, also attributed state funding as an issue.

“Over the past 15 years, however, we have only received a single 1% increase from the State,” he said in a statement. “As a result, we have not been able to provide our staff with the regular increases that they deserve.”

Osborne called on the state legislature to adequately fund all the nonprofits who are dealing with similar challenges.

“That is why I am standing alongside our staff, the CT Nonprofit Alliance and all of our member agencies to urge our legislative leaders to use the resources at their disposal to change the pattern of underfunding nonprofit agencies in Connecticut over the last 15 years,” I have added.

Rob Baril, the president of the 1199 union, said the state has outsourced public mental health work to nonprofits like Sound and Gilead over the last several decades “with the pretext of cutting costs.”

“These services rely on state funding, which has been stagnant for years,” he continued. “We have reached a point where we do not have sufficient 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 even in years without increases in state funding, “management at both agencies have given themselves raises.”

“When we get to the bargaining table, and year after year they claim poverty when it comes time to spend on similar increases to staff, you can imagine what that does to workers who are putting their bodies on the line every day,” Fontes- May said. “The years of the boss offering cents to staff while they continue to increase their dollars — it’s done.”

Jenkins, the lead residential recovery specialist at Sound, said “our bosses don’t even want to give us a penny.”

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

Jenkins prides himself in treating his clients with respect, showing compassion and love and talking to them instead of down to them.

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

From June 2020 to June 2021, Sound Community Services reported $11.1 million in revenue — almost $8.7 million of which came from government grants, according to Sound Community Services’ 2021 audit report on ProPublica’s nonprofit explorer.

Though specific salaries were not available in the audit report, it stated payroll made up about 70 percent of the organization’s $10.46 million in expenditures. The organization paid almost $6.28 million in salaries and wages, $1 million of which went to “management and general,” the audit report states.

The prior year, Sound Community Services reported $10.69 million in income and $10.5 million in expenses, according to Sound Community Services’ tax files from July 2019 to June 2020.

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

For Gilead, from July 2019 to June 2020, the organization reported paying almost $10.83 million in salaries and compensation to its 327 reported employees, according to its most recently available tax filing in ProPublica’s nonprofit explorer.

Of the top compensated employees, the tax filer said the CEO made more than $156,000 from Gilead, and other top employees received between $129,000 and $240,000 from related organizations.

The organization made $15.1 million that fiscal year and spent $14.49 million, according to the tax file.

The strike at Sound Community Services in New London begins Sunday at 6 am Sound workers are set to resume negotiations Wednesday after the three-day strike. Gilead workers are set to resume negotiations also after their strike the week of May 1. If they don’t reach agreements, workers can send another strike notice or take further action.

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