by Laura Krantz vtdigger.org Connie Norona treats opiate addicts at the Chittenden Clinic. She can tell you stories of excitement and growth and improvement. But Wednesday night, she told a different story. Norona, and about 150 others, gathered in Burlington City Hall to rally for higher wages for HowardCenter workers like herself. Social workers and clinicians at the Chittenden County social services agency say their bosses have improperly withheld a 3 percent raise the Legislature gave them.
“Opiate treatment is working. It works on the backs of the clinicians,” she said, describing how she and her co-workers put in at least eight unpaid hours per week just to complete paperwork for their rising caseloads.
Other social workers described keeping their heat low in the winter, not being able to buy food or repair their personal cars, which they use to transport patients. HowardCenter is the largest social services agency in the state.
AFSCME president Lee Saunders speaks at Wednesday’s rally by HowardCenter workers at Burlington City Hall. Photo by Cory Dawson/VTDigger
Meanwhile, HowardCenter Executive Director Todd Centybear said workers received the raise in last year’s contract. While he agrees low worker wages are a problem, the union has misconstrued the “3 percent” issue, he said.
“Our biggest challenge as an agency is, in fact, increasing base salaries at a level to stay even close to competitive,” he said.
At least seven HowardCenter workers spoke during the rally. They love their jobs, serving the most needy people in Burlington, they said. But it’s hard to focus on work when they can’t pay their own bills, they said.
“I shouldn’t have to get my kids to put on extra clothes to get warm,” said Alison Segar, a 54-year-old social worker who has worked 16 years at the HowardCenter and said she makes $41,000.
A co-worker, who has two college degrees, recently asked her for money to buy food. Another couldn’t afford her car insurance.
HowardCenter social worker Deanna Allen said clients read to her long lists of the social workers they’ve had over the years, because turnover is so high. Clients get tired of repeating their life stories, she said.
“Staff leave because the work is hard and the pay is low,” she said.
Worker Heather Lamonda’s parents help her afford car repairs and bought her a new pair of shoes this year.
Workers need help “not to buy Gucci handbags but to be able to live,” said Lamonda, 31. In her 10 years at HowardCenter she hasn’t received more than a $2 per hour overall raise, she said.
“HowardCenter likes to say everyone needs help sometimes and right now HowardCenter workers need your help,” she said.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFSCME, organized Wednesday night’s rally. The national union represents HowardCenter workers and is preparing for a “blitz” to grow membership.
AFSCME President Lee Saunders also spoke at the rally, as did union workers from other sectors who have rallied against their own management, including CCTA bus drivers, who struck this winter.
Several state lawmakers from Chittenden County and a member of the Burlington City Council attended as part of the “listening panel,” invited by AFSCME. At the request of union leaders, the politicians gave short speeches about what they would do to support workers.
Specifically, HowardCenter workers are calling for a 3 percent raise they say the Legislature granted them in 2013 but HowardCenter hasn’t paid. Lawyers representing the workers have filed a case in federal court demanding the raise.
Centybear explains the raise issue differently. The Legislature granted HowardCenter, and certain other organizations across the state who provide similar types of care, an increase in the amount of money they can bill the federal government to cover the cost of services they provide.
That increase did not start until part-way through this fiscal year, so the increase actually amounted to only about 2 percent, he said.
Meanwhile, last year the union and HowardCenter management negotiated a contract that included a 1.6 percent raise, in anticipation of that legislative increase to Medicaid billing, Centybear said.
The 1.6 amount was an estimate because they did not know how much the Legislature would increase the billing amount, but when it ended up being around 2 percent, they offered workers a flat amount to make up the difference, which the union refused, he said.
“It’s not like they gave us money to give everybody 3 percent,” Centybear said.
The union and management are now negotiating a new contract that will begin July 1.
Centybear said he agrees workers should be compensated more. But HowardCenter, which receives almost all of its funding from the state and federal governments, should be petitioning the Legislature for more money, not fighting among themselves, he said.
Centybear denied claims that he is anti-union. He said he supports workers’ right to organize and welcomes the union to worker trainings.
“We have provided not only the state with a financial report of what we did, we provided our finances and our audit to the union so they have all the financials, there’s nothing to hide,” he said.
At the rally Wednesday night were Sens. Tim Ashe, Ginny Lyons and Michael Sirotkin, all Chittenden County Democrats, as well as Rep. Chris Pearson, the leader of the state’s Progressive Party caucus, and City Councilwoman Rachel Siegel.