Unions Target Home Workers

As posted June 19, 2013 at http://online.wsj.com

As the population ages, more people are being paid by the government to care for the elderly in their homes. That has prompted unions to try to organize more such workers, who typically receive modest wages and few or no benefits.

But others question whether these workers even qualify to join a union, noting that many are caring for their relatives and could be considered self-employed. Battles have broken out in many legislatures over moves to allow, or bar, these workers from organizing.

After seven years as a home health aide in West Haven, Conn., Terrell Williams, 34, earns about $12 an hour, without health-care or retirement benefits. He attaches a lift used to help Michael Whalen, a paraplegic client with cerebral palsy, get in and out of bed.

The number of home health-care workers is expected to reach 3.2 million by 2020, up 68% from 1.9 million in 2010, according to the Labor Department.

Also known as personal-care aides, the workers typically bathe, dress and feed the elderly and people with disabilities, for a median wage of $9.70 an hour in 2010, the Labor Department says. Many have no health-care coverage themselves.

A large percentage of these workers are hired directly by people with disabilities or their families, rather than being employed by private agencies. Workers typically are paid with Medicaid or Medicare funds administered by states.

In many cases, home-care workers are relatives of the people they care for. A 2011 study commissioned by the state of Michigan found that 75% of home-care providers there went into the field to help a family member or friend.

Unions and many Democratic lawmakers say workers receiving public funds are state employees and can be unionized. Many Republican lawmakers and opponents of unionization argue that home-care workers are independent contractors, and therefore ineligible to join unions.

Last month, Democrats in Minnesota passed a bill over Republican objections giving 15,000 home health-care workers, as well as 7,000 home child-care providers, the ability to join unions. In Vermont, Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin signed a measure last month permitting the state’s 7,000 home health aides to unionize. In Connecticut, Democrats have passed measures enabling unions to represent the workers.

Republicans have overturned some moves to allow organizing home health-care workers, notably in Wisconsin and Ohio. Lawsuits filed by conservative groups are seeking to overturn organizing in other states.

“Home-care workers are the new face of labor,” said Eileen Boris, a professor of history at the University of California at Santa Barbara. She compares organizing these workers to the unionization of factory workers in the 1930s and ’40s.

After seven years on the job in West Haven, Conn., Terrell Williams, 34, earns about $12 an hour, without health or retirement benefits, or paid vacation or sick days. He helps one paraplegic client get in and out of bed and get dressed. For another client with a pulmonary disease, Mr. Williams does laundry and housework.

With benefits, “you could have more of a career,” said Mr. Williams. Last year, he voted to join the Service Employees International Union, which currently is negotiating with the state on behalf of 8,000 such workers.

Amid declining union membership, home-care workers are an increasingly important source of union strength. SEIU represents about 600,000 home-care workers—a major chunk of its 1.9 million members—in about 20 states, including Democratic strongholds like California, New York and Massachusetts.

About 25% of home-care workers nationwide belong to unions, estimates Ms. Boris of the University of California.

In an interview, SEIU President Mary Kay Henry said the union would focus on organizing home-care and other health workers. “It’s a sector of the economy that hasn’t collapsed in the economic downturn and it can’t be offshored,” she said.

Pay varies widely for unionized home-care workers. In northern California, workers who belong to SEIU earn more than $12 an hour and a small percentage have health care through union contracts.

But success in winning higher pay and benefits has been mixed. In Michigan, SEIU organized 41,000 home-care workers in 2005. Today, many of them earn $8 an hour, slightly more than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, according to the union’s most recent contract. During eight years of union representation, the workers didn’t gain health benefits, vacation time or sick leave.

Michigan workers paid dues representing 2.75% of their income, yielding $35 million for the union since 2005.

SEIU says it won a big pay increase for Michigan workers and helped set up a training program, and that it also helped workers by lobbying against budget cuts to home-care programs.

Last year, Michigan Republican Gov. Rick Snyder signed a law barring home health aides from unionizing, saying that “private individuals cannot become public employees simply by receiving government dollars.” The move erased about 45,000 members from SEIU’s rolls and $6 million in annual dues.

Some home-care workers in Michigan are glad they are no longer part of SEIU.

Chet Junker, 78, of Evart, Mich., said he and his wife receive a bit more than $1,000 a month from the state to bathe, dress and feed their 46-year-old son, who was left severely disabled from seizures suffered as a boy. The state stopped deducting about $17 a month in union dues in April.

Mr. Junker, a retired insurance agent, said he never supported the union even though he believes it lobbied successfully for a pay increase for home-care workers. He said he opposed SEIU’s political stands and wasn’t informed that a union election was going to be held.

“I had no choice when they wrote to me and said you’re going to be in the union,” he said. “I’m happy I’m not in the union anymore.”

The Mackinac Center and National Right to Work Legal Foundation, both conservative groups, have filed lawsuits in Illinois, Minnesota and elsewhere similarly arguing that courts should overturn laws allowing home-care organizing. One appeal is pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“They aren’t employees,” said Patrick Wright, director of Michigan’s Mackinac Center Legal Foundation. “They’re hired and fired by their clients.”

Matt Austin is a Columbus, Ohio employment lawyer who owns Austin Legal, LLC, a boutique law firm with offices in central and northeast Ohio that limits its representation to employers dealing with labor, employment, and OSHA matters. Matt can be reached by email at Matt.Austin@Austin-Legal.com or by phone at 614.285.5342.