By Gina Macris
Unionized workers supporting about 250 adults with developmental disabilities have indicated they may strike at Seven Hills Rhode Island over wages that lag significantly below those in neighboring states. No deadline has been set for a walkout.
The possibility of a strike by about 180 members of the United Nurses and Allied Professionals (UNAP) was disclosed in a letter that the management of Seven Hills sent to families Jan. 15. Talks between labor and management continue, according to a source with knowledge of the negotiations.
An official of the state Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals (BHDDH) indicated that the union must give a 10-day notice of any walkout.
Kevin Savage, Associate Director for Quality Management, said Jan.18 that “BHDDH is in close contact with Seven Hills administration, who have put together a plan to ensure coverage of necessary services in the event that the union gives them a 10-day notice that a walk out will occur.”
He said BHDDH contracts with Seven Hills to support about 250 persons with developmental disabilities in a variety of residential settings, as well as supported employment services and non-work daytime activities.
The Jan. 15 letter to families, signed by Seven Hills’ vice president, Cliff R. Cabral, said that a work stoppage could force the agency to suspend or reduce “several program offerings.”
“Our day services program will be limited to 24 residential participants,” Cabral said. Seven Hills has 76 residential clients, according to the latest data compiled by the state.
Efforts to reach Cabral or a UNAP spokesperson were not immediately successful.
Average entry-level wages for direct care workers in Rhode Island are $11.36 an hour, according to the most recent figure released by the Community Provider Network of Rhode Island, a trade association representing two thirds of the private providers of developmental disability services in the state.
Governor Gina Raimondo has proposed an incremental raise – estimated by BHDDH at an average of about 44 cents an hour – effective July 1.
In Connecticut, entry-level direct care workers must be paid a minimum of $14.75 houirly. The Connecticut legislature approved the raises last May, even though it had not yet acted on the state budget, to avert a strike that had been planned at that time by the Service Employees’ International Union (SEIU). The wage hikes became effective three weeks ago, on Jan. 1.
SEIU also has negotiated a $15 hourly minimum wage with Massachusetts for direct care workers in that state that went into effect July 1, 2018.
In the letter to families, Cabral said that “Seven Hills Rhode Island stands with our employees and will continue to advocate on their behalf for the living wage they deserve.”
He said Rhode Island’s system of care for adults with developmental disabilities still has not recovered from the General Assembly’s $24 million reduction in services in 2011. (Final figures on actual spending put the total over $26 million.)
Despite repeated and concerted advocacy, “our state representatives continue to place funding for individuals with developmental disabilities low on their priority list,”he said. The General Assembly’s inaction has significantly “compromised the sustainability of the current system,” which, Cabral said, has been weakened by below-market compensation and high staff turnover.
“Organizations such as ours have taken several painful measures throughout the past decade in an effort to ensure our fiscal sustainability, including liquidating assets and significantly reducing our administrative resources,” Cabral wrote.
While it has adhered to the “highest delivery standards possible,” Seven Hills cannot sustain its efforts indefinitely, Cabral said. He called on UNAP to join with management “to more productively direct our collective efforts toward lobbying for a substantial investment in this year’s state budget in order to adequately address the needs of those with developmental disabilities while ensuring a living wage for the remarkable individuals who support them.”
Seven Hills Rhode Island offers a variety of services for children, families and adults, with offices in Cranston and Woonsocket. Services for adults with developmental disabilities are based in Woonsocket, covering northern Rhode Island.