MONTPELIER — One of the larger groups of unorganized workers in the state could soon win the power to form a union.
The Vermont Senate last week gave almost unanimous approval to legislation that would grant collective bargaining rights to about 6,000 home-care workers scattered across the state. This small army of low-wage employees is the hidden labor force behind government programs that deliver subsidized care to elderly and disabled residents who need help to stay in their homes.
While their paychecks are funded by the state, these workers function as independent contractors. And any attempts to negotiate new wages collectively would run afoul of federal anti-trust laws.
“Quite frankly these folks are on the bottom of the food chain,” Sen. Ann Cummings, a Washington County Democrat, said last week. “They work very hard, and receive very little in the way of benefits.”
A crowd of home-care workers dressed in blue union T-shirts looked on from the Senate chamber last Thursday as lawmakers there cast a key vote.
Karen Connor is a communications director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, one of two unions seeking to organize the workers. She said many home-care workers make less than $10 an hour and receive no mileage reimbursement, despite the fact that their jobs often require them to use their own vehicles to shuttle patients to doctor’s appointments, grocery trips and other errands.
“We want to make sure they do have some voice when it comes to issues of pay, because right now they have nothing,” Conner said. “There’s no one to speak up for them, or to point out issues or problems, because right now there is no vehicle at all for the state to even hear them.”
Home-care workers, who spend their days inside the residences of the individuals for whom they’re responsible for providing care, don’t have supervisors to whom they can report problems. The terms of their employment are negotiated on a person-by-person basis with patient-clients, who use state stipends to pay for the care provided by their home-care worker.
Matt McDonald, Vermont director for 1199 SEIU Health Care Workers East, the other union vying to represent the workers, said the duties performed by home-care employees — responsibilities can range from helping bathe clients to preparing meals — are often the only thing between patients and a nursing home. He said ensuring the stability of that workforce is an appropriate public investment, given the amount of taxpayer dollars saved as a result of their work.
Exactly how much more Vermont will have to pay if workers earn collective bargaining rights remains unclear. Total payroll for the workforce is an estimated $40 million, so every 1-percent increase in pay would amount to $400,000 annually.
Gov. Peter Shumlin has said the higher wages in increased benefits won’t impact the state budget until fiscal year 2015. He said his administration, which will be responsible for negotiating wages with the new union, hasn’t forecast what the added pressure will be on the human services budget. He said, however, that the workers deserve to be paid more than they’re making now.
The home-care bill is far less controversial in Montpelier than similar legislation that would have extended collective bargaining rights to child care workers. That bill was shot down by a Senate committee last week, and it’s unclear whether the bill will resurface before the session is over.
The home-care bill, which stipulates that workers will not be allowed to strike, looks to have a clear path toward passage in the House, where lawmakers will take it up in the coming weeks.
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