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Latest News - May 2014

May 28, 2014
Harris v. Quinn Case Dividing Disability Community, Unions
Source: Independence Today
By: Janine Bertram Kemp

Disability rights leaders are divided over Harris v. Quinn, a case recently heard by the Supreme Court that challenges collective bargaining concerning wages and benefits for personal care attendants.

The case involves a challenge by Illinois resident Pamela Harris, a parent and personal care attendant. The suit, heard by the nation’s highest court on Jan. 21, attests that states should not be allowed to compel PCAs (also called home care workers) to submit to exclusive representation by a labor union and then pay for the privilege. The court’s decision is expected by June.

Illinois has designated SEIU Healthcare Illinois & Indiana, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union, as the exclusive representative for caregivers in bargaining with the state over reimbursement rates.

Some Illinois organizations and Washington, D.C.- based national groups signed on to an amicus brief supporting SEIU and collective bargaining for PCAs. These groups maintain that a decision against the unions as the collective bargaining agent for PCAs will threaten independence for people with disabilities who use personal care assistants in consumer-directed programs.

The argument, in very basic terms, is that people with disabilities must have PCAs to live independently. Low wages and no or poor benefits mean that it is harder to find reliable, competent PCAs, and the only way to ensure a living wage and decent benefits is through collective bargaining and unions.

Both sides of the controversy support good wages and benefits for PCAs and say that they are essential for finding and maintaining good employees.

The California In-Home Supportive Services Consumers Alliance (IHSS), several ADAPT chapters and centers for independent living, plus parent groups in the developmental disabilities community, believe that unionizing threatens consumer control and independence. They feel that advocacy is the best means of garnering higher wages for PCAs and say that reliance on SEIU and collective bargaining will wrest more independence away from consumers.

SEIU’s job-training requirement is seen as an example of loss of consumer control. In Washington state, SEIU insists that all PCAs go through 75 hours of state-funded job training, a mandate that takes time away from consumers and wages from PCAs. Some say that the $150 cost is simply a back-door way of filling SEIU coffers. Some longtime PCAs, who have already been instructed as to how a consumer wants his or her care provided, call the training a burden and a threat to consumer direction of PCA services.

Those who support the collective bargaining side of Harris v. Quinn outline a two-pronged model for managing consumer-directed care. Most consumer-directed models of attendant care are funded by Medicaid dollars, which are administered at the state (and sometimes county) level. Because the state pays wages and determines benefits, it is suggested that collective bargaining can occur with the state around these issues only. That leaves hiring, firing and the specifics of work tasks to be directed by the consumer.

Access Living, a large Chicago CIL, signed on to the Harris v. Quinn amicus brief that supports collective bargaining. “Together, we have strengthened programs in Illinois to ensure that people with disabilities maintain control over services that support their independence, while at the same time increasing wages and benefits for workers, creating a stable relationship that prevents costly institutionalization,” said Marca Bristo, Access Living president and CEO.

“People should have self-direction and a co-employer relation with the state or county,” said Galen Smith, co-founder of Minnesota ADAPT, which, as of press time, has not taken a position on Harris v. Quinn. Smith noted that it is either the state or county that administers payment. “They set wages, requirements, training opportunities, and the workers should be able to bargain over these. The rest must be controlled by consumer: hire, fire, and all the tasks that make up the job.”

Smith believes that Harris v. Quinn is part of a broad-based attempt to attack unions. “The bottom line is, there are people and corporations and big-money interests whose mission it is to make sure people can’t join together and have better conditions for workers,” he said. “In this case, they have also attacked the disability movement and people who care about self-direction.”

Michael Bailey, past president of NDRN and a longtime advocacy leader, agreed. He feels the gains in his home state of Oregon show the effectiveness of collective bargaining.

"Since adoption of the Home Care Commission, Oregon's wage for home support workers is now $14.25 to start and includes health-care and worker compensation,” he said. “Without collective bargaining, we would still be paying $8 an hour with no benefits."

But many disability leaders across the country said they do not believe SEIU negotiates with integrity and, via collective bargaining, would whittle away a consumer’s right to hire, fire and direct their PCAs.

SEIU’s requirement of 75 hours of mandatory training has angered both PCAs and people with disabilities.

“Instead of enhancing and adding labor benefits to that program as they promised, the union is using state-funded in-home supportive services as their own personal piggy bank to build their empires, to collect more dues by requiring more workers, because they must know the state will limit the number of hours caregivers can work,” said Nancy Becker Kennedy, a longtime California-based disability advocate.

They will use dollars taxpayers intended to pay for the care of seniors and people with disabilities and get that money from the states by taking lucrative contracts to provide 75 hours of mandatory general training,” added Kennedy, who co-founded the IHSS Consumers Alliance and is a board member of the Los Angeles County Personal Assistance Services Council that oversees services for 180,000 seniors and people with disabilities.

SEIU also earned the mistrust of leaders with disabilities when it supported the Department of Labor’s companionship exemption (see www.itodaynews.com/pdf/issue_35, “DOL: A Pay Raise -- or a Sham?”). DOL put through a measure that resulted in reduced PCA hours via mandatory overtime without consulting NCIL or ADAPT and without additional Medicaid funding to pay for it. ADAPT and NCIL are the two national grassroots organizations most involved with long-term community-based services policy.

Regarding the Harris v. Quinn case, Bob Kafka, national ADAPT organizer, said: “Like the DOL companion rules, this Supreme Court case puts some in the disability community in the awkward position of being in opposition to organized labor. The unintended consequence of labor’s advocacy is to harm the provision of consumer-directed attendant services.”

Other advocates noted that it is unfortunate that leading disability groups and SEIU cannot join forces because they represent two of the most oppressed and ignored communities in the country. Some felt that more progress would be made if SEIU adhered to the catchphrase “nothing about us without us.”

 

 


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