Groden Center behavioral specialists seek more timely contract negotiations

PROVIDENCE – Groden Center behavioral specialists represented by District 1199 SEIU New England elaborated on complaints of low pay, high turnover and placing inexperienced temporary staff during their picket of the center’s schools in Providence and Coventry Wednesday, as union leaders called for more speedy negotiations.

Emmanuel Falck, spokesman for District 1199 SEIU New England, said the behavioral specialsts’ contract expired June 30. For the last few months, said Mary-Murphy Walsh, union rep negotiating with The Groden Network, the nonprofit has only scheduled negotiation meetings with them every other week as they have repeatedly asked to meet weekly.

Walsh and Falck said they see the difficulty setting up weekly meetings as a delaying tactic.

“So far Groden management has not been taking staffing concerns seriously.  If Groden management continues to stall, members will hold a strike vote in the near future,” Falck said.

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The Groden Center is part of the Groden Network, founded in 1976, a nonprofit school providing support and services to children and adults with autism and other developmental disabilities and behavioral challenges. The organization runs the Groden Center with locations in Providence, Coventry and Pawtucket; The Cove Center Inc. for adults on Manton Avenue in Providence and The Halcyon Center residential programs in Attleboro.

Falck said constant turn-over and use of temporary staff at the school deprives Groden Center students of a quality education and results in daily injuries and unsafe situations for students and staff. Falck attributes the turnover problem to low wages and management priorities. Behavior specialists start at $11.70 per hour at the Center, or $21,294 per year, while managers make six-figure salaries and some have received million-dollar retirement packages, he said.

During the picket Wednesday, Kaile Bautista, a Behavior Specialist at Groden North school in Providence, said many students are not receiving the basics of their educational needs due to staffing. “They are refusing to pay a living wage, improve staffing levels, or adequately address our safety concerns,” said Bautista. “That’s why we’re standing up for ourselves and our students.”

“Things have never been this bad,” said Bob Arruda, a behavior specialist who’s worked at Groden for 20 years. “Every day now our students are put in the care of a rotating cast of temporary agency staff, who don’t know their needs and don’t have the training to help them learn to their full potential.”

Groden Network CEO Laurie Vinkavich-Cole said the organization is negotiating with the approximately 60 staff represented by the union in good faith, and that she shares concerns about high turnover at the school.

Vinkavich-Cole referenced a 2017 report from the President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities, America’s Direct Support Workforce Crisis…” which reports the average turnover rate for direct support personnel such as behavioral specialists is 45 percent. The overall Groden Center turnover in 2017 was 28.7 percent, she said.

Also according to the report, the national average salary for a Direct Support professional is $10.72.

“The $11.70 wage referenced in Union statements is the starting salary for a direct support professional with a High School degree. The average direct support professional pay rate at the Groden Center is $12.93 per hour. As you can see The Groden Center pay rates exceed national benchmarks,” Vinkavich-Cole said.

Rob Borkowski is a PBN staff writer. Email him at Borkowski@PBN.com.

This article has been updated with additional comment from Groden Network CEO Laurie Vinkavich-Cole.

Correction: This article has been updated with the correct end date of the contract.