Progress in home care hinges on Supreme Court case

With the Supreme Court set to rule on Harris v. Quinn, a case that could limit the collective bargaining rights of 20,000 home care workers in Illinois, we wondered what difference union representation has made in their lives.

It comes down to much better wages, health insurance, and professional training, longtime homecare workers told us. And across the board, they say, these improvements mean a higher quality of care for their clients, thousands of seniors and people with disabilities.

In many cases it means people are able to stay in their own homes and live independently, rather than being forced in to nursing homes. That translates into huge savings for the state.

Before the union, pay was below minimum wage, said Flora Johnson, who cares for a 47-year-old son Kenneth, who has cerebral palsy. She also chairs the executive board of SEIU Healthcare Illinois, which represents home care workers.

“It was terrible,” she recalls. “I was at $5.40 [an hour]. I might figure, well, if I pay the light bill, we’ll still have something left over for food. The bills go on no matter what you make.”

Some workers were paid as little as one-third of the minimum wage. Home care workers, primarily minority females, were historically excluded from minimum wage and overtime regulations — until last September, when President Obama extended the Fair Labor Standards Act’s protections to the industry. But in Illinois, wages starting going up 10 years ago, after home care workers voted to join SEIU. They’re now significantly higher than the minimum wage.

“Now I’m at $11.85, and it’s going up to $13 at the end of the year. Now that we have the union and we can bargain for ourselves, we don’t get everything, but we get something,” Johnson said. “If we didn’t have the union, I don’t know if I could make it.”

While substandard wages added to stress for family members caring for relatives, they also created problems for seniors and people with disabilities who were cared for by non-relatives, she said. Before the union contract, it was hard to keep good caregivers.

“Before the union, we had so many turnovers. People would say, ‘I’ve got to leave this job, I’m not making enough money,'” she said. Clients weren’t happy with a constantly shifting array of new faces coming into their homes and attending to their most personal needs. Now outside workers development long-term, caring professional relationships with the individuals the care for, Johnson said.

Disability rights groups agree. In an amicus brief in the case, the American Association of People With Disabilities and other groups argue that “collective bargaining … has served the interests and independence of people with disabilities by helping to promote a stable personal assistant workforce.”

The union contract also provides for paid trainings, Johnson said. These cover topics including safe lifting, infection control, nutrition and exercise for people with disabilities, first aid and CPR, mental health issues, identifying and reporting abuse and fraud, and the independent living philosophy.

“You need to know how to turn [clients] and how to lift them correctly, so you’re not hurting them and you’re not hurting yourself.” she said. “Before the union, there was nothing like that. We were just out there.”

Harris v. Quinn involves some significant issues. In oral arguments, the lawyer for the National Right to Work Foundation, representing the plaintiffs, urged the Supreme Court to overturn a decades-old decision that many consider crucial for organizing public sector workers.

On the ground in Illinois, meanwhile, an adverse ruling could make it harder for a large group of low-wage workers to continue the progress they’ve achieved in the past decade.

“I’m not afraid because whatever way the court case goes, we are going to keep on sticking together; no court case is going to stop home care workers from sticking together for good jobs and quality care,” said Johnson. “We are going to keep on working, keep on building.”

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