More than 50 staff, union reps, and concerned families chanted and picketed Thursday afternoon at The Groden Center in Providence. The gathered participants were making their concerns public in their struggle for fair wages and safe staffing practices.
“At one time the Groden Center was considered an excellent school for autism,” said Cory Lafleur a staff member and key figure in negotiations with the Groden management, “and I want to help it get there.”
According to Lafleur the staff has been negotiating with Groden management since October with no changes and are now going public with their fight. Lafleur, who has worked at Groden for ten years, says he’s “seen things deteriorate,” and that the school is “loosely run,” with an emphasis on a “high turnover” rather than taking care of employees. Lafleur has accused Groden of walking away in the middle of negotiations and wasting the staff’s time while not budging on any point.
Among those in attendance were reps like Chas Walker from Service Employees International United (SEIU) Local 1199, who was running the event, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 328, Teamsters Local 251, among a plethora of other local reps. All supporting the cause of Groden staff members including Rep. Patricia Serpa (D-West Warwick) and Rep. J. Aaron Regunberg (D-Providence).
Most of The Groden Center staff receive as little as $11.25 an hour, with very few making above $12.00 an hour. Allison Peterson, who has worked at The Groden Center in Coventry for three years, claims to have only received one raise in that time and only because of new hiring practices. Rep. Serpa called the treatment of the staff “morally repugnant” and “incomprehensible.”
According to Peterson during emergencies the staff are able to make “support calls” and have additional staff from nearby facilities intervene to ensure student safety. But even at times that’s not enough.
The chanting rang out in the Eastside neighborhood as Fil Eden lead the calls through a megaphone, various chants of “Can’t survive on eleven twenty-five!” and “What do we want? Safe Staffing. When do we want it? Now!”
Safe staffing means hiring more guides to take care of the children, with current student to staff ratios being nearly 1 to 2, or a 1 to 1. It would seem this number should mean each student is properly cared for but many students need near constant care as well as emergency cases where more 2, or even 3, staff members need to stop a student from hurting themselves or others. Leaving other students unattended.
“I’m passionate about it, I love the kids, I love what this institution is built on, but I don’t see them caring as much as I care. And that’s a problem,” said Lafleur.
Lafleur, Peterson, and many other staff spoke at length about the quality of care they provide and the love they have for the children under their care. As well as having the right kind of staff and people work at the school. The job coming with many difficulties, from the above mentioned emergencies to the slow progress of many of the students who are on somewhere on the autism scale.
“Not everybody is cut out for this job, so when you have people that are willing to work here, that enjoy working here, understand that they’re not gonna get rich working here, and don’t want to leave,” Lafleur said through a megaphone to the gathered crowd. “You need to recognize those people and pay them what they deserve.”