July 16, 2016

Coming due: Minnesota home-care worker union stumbles early

By: Tom Steward

Mary Ann Howitson got quite the surprise when, as a new member of the Service Employees International Union, she’ll have to shell out an extra $550 a year.

Howitson is a Twin Cities personal care assistant. Her name, unbeknownst to Howitson, showed up on the list of workers set to have union dues deducted from their paychecks in July.

The fine print on the card Howitson signed to authorize a union election unwittingly obligated her to join the collective bargaining unit — approved in a low turnout vote last year.

Howitson’s sticker shock at losing the equivalent of about 1 1/2 paychecks to a union she eventually voted against typifies the rocky rollout of the initial two-year SEIU contract.

“I feel deceived and confused. If you are a PCA (Personal Care Assistant) and you want to be in a union, I think that’s fine, there’s that option. I just want to be able to opt out of it, and I feel like I somehow opted into it, without realizing I was doing that,” said Howitson, who’s among numerous home-care workers asking SEIU to drop them from the union rolls.

The union can no longer compel non-members covered by the collective bargaining agreement to pay “fair share fees,” under a 2014 US Supreme Court ruling. But a Minnesota Department of Human Services memo reveals that direct-care workers on SEIU’s list will have 3 percent of their gross wages automatically deducted for “voluntary union dues.”

Nearly 27,000 Minnesotans provide home-based help for family members and others with special needs through Medicaid programs that subsidize the cost to avoid institutionalized care. It’s unclear how many have joined the union, intentionally or not. SEIU Healthcare Minnesota representatives did not respond to inquiries.

“DHS sees this as an opportunity to collaborate with provider agencies, lead agencies, and SEIU Healthcare Minnesota to develop a process that benefits all parties involved,” DHS said in an email.

The contract approved by the 2015 Minnesota Legislature raises minimum pay from $9 to $10.75 an hour and provides up to five days’ paid time off. Lawmakers appropriated $16 million, along with $16 million in federal funds, to give care recipients a 1.53 percent increase to help cover the costs of unionization.

“I’m so excited to get paid time off, after working for all these years without it,” Christine Hale, a Crosby home-care worker said in a SEIU release. “The last time I had a surgery I had to go back to work right away because I was the only provider for my family — and it was really hard.”

But behind the scenes, some home-care agencies and workers have expressed concern and confusion over changes tied to the new labor agreement.

“It feels like the cart’s before the horse, so to speak. It seems like they made a deal with the union before they implemented the program and now they’re going, ‘Oh, no. Now what?’ It feels real haphazard to me, and I don’t understand where it’s at,” said Shelly Elkington, owner of Avenues for Care, a Montevideo in-home care agency.

A June 26 DHS memo obtained by Watchdog Minnesota Bureau outlines “action required for labor agreement compliance” by agencies to continue to receive funding. The new reporting mandates include tracking union membership, dues deductions for union members, paid time off accrual and use — all to be sent directly to SEIU.

“When I go to my families and start telling them this stuff, they give me the deer-in-the-headlights look. They have no idea what I’m talking about. Whether it’s the 1.53 percent increase, what’s paid time off, why do I have to change the pay rate? They don’t understand any of it,” said Scott Price, who manages his daughter’s support staff and consults with other recipients on care plans.

By law, union membership is open only to home-care workers directly employed by care recipients, not through an agency. In recent weeks, many care recipients have switched to an agency-based plan, leaving workers who care for them apparently ineligible for union membership.

For example, the number of employees eligible to be in the union at Avenues for Care plummeted from 120 in June to 15 in July. The trend has set off alarms among officials at DHS and SEIU, leading union representatives to press some agencies for an explanation.

“They (care recipients) spoke loud and clear what they wanted. They wanted agency support. I think DHS and the union vastly underestimated the relationships that agencies build with their clients,” said Elkington, who opposes the process but not necessarily the union.

For union members already earning more than the new $10.75 minimum pay, the contract may amount to a pay cut, factoring in the cost of dues. Home-care workers bumped up to the new hourly rate may see their working hours cut, according to several fiscal agents who manage care recipients’ budgets.

“This will affect the number of hours staff can work from 7/1/15 until the end of your plan year. Please adjust your hours accordingly. You may need to talk with your case manager and support planner to do an addendum,” states an Accra Consumer Choice email to clients.

Amid the transition, some warn against a shift in priorities.

“This is overwhelming, not just for us. We’ve got to remember, we’re serving people. We’re not putting out widgets here,” said Elkington. “Nobody has a busier and more full life than somebody with a disability, and the job is to create an easier time for them, not more complicated.”

This article was originally published by Watchdog.org on July 9, 2015.

Tom Steward formerly served as staff reporter for Watchdog.org.