By ERWIN FREED
In the early morning of Tuesday, Oct. 12, Sunrise Group elder-care and nursing-care workers walked off their jobs and formed picket lines at four main strike locations across Connecticut. The strike comes after months of negotiations and an authorization vote targeting multiple companies, which passed around two weeks ago. While the workers had been negotiating on a sectoral basis, only Sunrise Group refused to make the concessions necessary to stop a strike.
Now, 149 care workers across 28 group homes are standing strong to demand pensions, better wages, and Juneteenth as a paid holiday. Socialist Resurgence members joined picket lines around the state to stand with SEIU 1199NE workers and hear their stories.
Dangerous conditions for workers and residents
A common theme in both the New London and Hartford locations from caregivers was that the management at Sunrise abuses full-time workers. All of the workers that Socialist Resurgence spoke with had been with the company for at least seven years and many for well over two decades. Despite having essential jobs dealing with critical patient care for disabled and elderly people, raises have been few and far in between. Now, new hires can start at a wage equal to or slightly greater than many long-time workers, around $17.50 an hour, sorely short of a living wage in one of the most expensive states in the country.
Benefits are also horrible. Monthly premiums for health insurance range from $2000 per month for individuals to $6000 for families, both completely unaffordable to Sunrise employees. There is no pension plan and workers voiced feelings of fear about their families’ future if something should happen to them on or off the job.
All of this leads to a situation in which Sunrise facilities are experiencing a tremendous amount of turnover for new hires. That was the case before the pandemic and so-called “labor shortage” but have accelerated in recent months. One worker explained on the picket line that people get hired, receive a hiring bonus of $500, attend a few training sessions, and immediately quit before ever working one shift. Workers who have been with the company for a long time are staying because they have personal, professional, and emotional connections with their co-workers and residents. Meanwhile, the company is only worried about the bottom line.
Now, due to the lack of a living wage or basic benefits, the workers who have stayed in the group homes have to deal with truly inhuman conditions. They shoulder incredible responsibilities for basically minimum wage and no thanks from Sunrise. At the Montauk Ave. location in New London, after another woman left, there is now only one full-time worker, Alex, hired for third shift. She is alone virtually every night, solely responsible for the six residents in the house. Anyone who has done elder care or taken care of just one sick family member at a time knows that this is a terrifying position to be in. Every location of Sunrise Group has stories like this. At some there are now only one or two full-time workers left.
Union busting comes to Sunrise
Sunrise corporate management is doing what it can to show workers that it simply does not care about them at all. The level of pettiness from the company is not unusual, but might be thought to be astounding given the incredibly important work that its employees do, especially in the midst of a pandemic in which group and nursing homes have been particularly hard hit.
From the Montauk Ave. house in New London, management moved the location’s six residents to a nursing home in Bridgeport on Monday, when they realized the strike was going to happen. Workers on the line pointed out the fact that now Sunrise will be paying nursing home bed fees of at least $800 per person per day, or around $144,000 total per month between the six patients. Workers also pointed out that the level of care will be much worse than what the residents are used to, and fear that they will come back with skin problems and other issues due to the much less frequent bathing schedule. Before being wheeled into the transportation van, one resident told her caregiver that she hopes she does not die in the new location. Around noon in New London, maintenance came, crossed the picket line, and conspicuously changed the locks on the house.
Perhaps the most explicit example of total disrespect towards its workers has been the refusal of Sunrise to apply for money allocated to nursing and group home employees by the state last July. Following a strike threat from the thousands organized through SEIU 1199 NE, the Connecticut government caved and apportioned $184 million available in new state funding for increasing wages and benefits—including pensions—for nursing and group home workers in the state. As many workers pointed out, this is the company refusing to take “free money,” apparently purely out of spite.
Solidarity and militancy needed
Sunrise caregivers are giving an important example of how a group of brave and determined workers can really fight for better wages, benefits, and conditions for all workers. Strikers are virtually all women and the vast majority are Latinx, Asian, and Black immigrants or children of immigrants. They deserve the full-throated support of union and non-union workers around Connecticut, the United States, and the world.
One thing currently missing from the picket lines is the presence of community and union members supporting the strike. Rank-and-file militants of other locals should feel encouraged to bring their co-workers and walk the line to show that working people in Connecticut stand together for good living conditions for group home workers and their residents. Every ounce of solidarity helps striking workers hold the line and win the demands they so desperately need.
Socialist Resurgence members and supporters in Connecticut will continue to show up in solidarity with Sunrise workers and encourage all of our readers to do the same. After a strike fund set up, we will inform our readers, our union locals, and people in our communities where to send donations.
Picket lines are currently in operation at: 80 Whitney St., Hartford; 474 Rt. 87, Columbia; 729 Montauk Ave., New London; 116 Hawkins St., Danielson.
Photo: Sunrise picket line in New London, Conn. (Erwin Freed / Socialist Resurgence)