News Article Details

Union workers strike at school for students with autism

Providence Journal - 8/17/2018

Aug. 17--PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Union workers at the Groden Center, which serves students with autism and related conditions at day schools in Providence and Coventry, are on strike Friday.

The strike by members of 1199 SEIU, the Service Employees Union International, New England, was set to last for one day. Parent company the Groden Network said the strike was taking place at the Groden Center's two day schools, on Mount Hope Avenue in Providence and in Coventry. Classes were canceled for the day, the Groden Network said. Its residential programs are not affected, the network said.

The union says that management has refused to raise the starting rate for staffers to a living wage. The impasse has caused high turnover, unfilled classrooms and injuries to staff and students, the union argues.

About 50 employees marched on the picket line Friday morning as a loudspeaker blared songs from the Rolling Stones.

Mary-Murphy Walsh, a union organizer, said the labor dispute wasn't only about earning more money. She said a reliance on outside staff, provided by a subcontractor, has posed safety issues for both staff and students. Children with autism, she said, need stability and continuity to feel safe. When there is a rotating number of new adults, she said, students are more likely to act out.

"They rely on temporary workers whose unfamiliar faces is a real problem for kids with autism," Walsh said. We feel the only way to retain staff is to raise the starting salary to $15 an hour."

Walsh said the center is forced to hire outside employees because of the salaries, which start at $11.70 an hour.

But Catherine Nassa, Groden's director of marketing and development, said the average salary for teaching assistants is $12.91 with employees earning as much as $23 an hour. She also said that these employees receive an average of eight weeks off a year.

Nassa said the center provided the union with data regarding temporary staff coverage of direct support shifts over a recent 12-month period. She said temporary staff made up 17 percent of the center's total direct care at the Providence site and 13 percent at its Coventry school. The average of both locations was 15.5 percent, she said.

A fact sheet from the center said that almost half of its SEIU workers have been there five or more years.

Nassa also denied that Groden was putting staff or children at risk: "We have had zero safety violations by any accrediting agency in 20 years."

She said she believed that agency would be the Rhode Island Department of Education.

Nassa declined to provide the salary of contracted employees. She said her agency plans to appeal a ruling by the National Labor Relations Board telling Groden to release that information to the union.

The union's contract expired June 30. Both sides are still negotiating.

The Groden Network, meanwhile, says it regrets any inconvenience the strike may cause.

"We are working with public safety officials to ensure the safety of our staff and peace within our communities," a representative said in an email.

About 63 of 650 employees at the Groden Network are SEIU members, according to Groden. Most are direct support professionals, Groden says.

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(c)2018 The Providence Journal (Providence, R.I.)

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