July 16, 2016

Home-care workers find getting out harder than getting in union

By: Tom Steward

Renee Katz has one question for the Service Employees International Union: What part of “no” don’t you understand?

“I can’t get out of it. They want me to now do some letter and certify mail it. They didn’t certify mail anything to me. And then every time I call or email, they try to talk me into staying,” said Katz.

The Oakdale mother works part-time as a personal care assistant for her special needs daughter and other care recipients through subsidized programs designed to avoid institutionalized care. She was outraged to learn 3 percent of their gross wages would be taken for dues for a union she didn’t realized she joined.

Her hard-line response stands out because Katz comes from a pro-union family.

“We’re a huge union family. My husband’s union is wonderful,” Katz said. “… It’s not that I don’t believe in unions. It’s just not right for me. I don’t want to be part of the union, I don’t need it.”

Katz failed to realize she became a member in February 2014 when she signed a card supporting an election to form a union. More than 9,000 PCAs signed the same card, though just 3,500 ultimately voted to form the union, approved in a low-turnout vote in August.

“I guess it’s not just me, because I thought, ‘Oh, what a dummy.’ But it’s just the way they went about it.”

Emails Katz traded with SEIU representatives — shared with Watchdog Minnesota Bureau — provide an unusual window into the rocky rollout of the home-care worker union’s first contract that took effect July 1.

“What is the process to rescind my union membership? I have emailed a couple of times and called the SEIU to opt out of the union, and it does not seem to get me anywhere,” Katz wrote in an email to SEIU Healthcare Minnesota’s Member Action Center.

SEIU can no longer compel non-members covered by the collective bargaining agreement to pay “fair share fees,” under a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. But Katz got the heads up July 2 that she was on the list for the automatic “voluntary” deductions from the Adena agency that coordinates her services.

“My agency seems to think she still needs to take union dues out, when I have requested to opt out. I am getting very frustrated and will be filing a complaint!” she emailed SEIU.

Adena engaged in a phone and email tit-for-tat of its own, demanding legal proof of Katz’s union membership before deducting dues.

“When they come and they’re screaming at me because this is so wrong, what am I supposed to do?” said Dena Belilse, the agency’s owner. “I’m not one of those providers that say, ‘Oh, tough, good luck to you.’ We’re family, and I’m going to do what I can to protect you.”

Union representatives did not respond to Watchdog Minnesota Bureau inquiries. But SEIU reluctantly emailed the signed card to both Katz and Belisle, as proof of purchase.

“Thanks for checking in and I’m sorry to hear about your frustration,” SEIU organizer Galen Smith said in an email to Katz. “… The membership card that you signed authorizes your agency to deduct your dues payment from your paycheck and transmit that payment to your Union.”

Smith’s email assured Katz a letter mailed July 10 would walk her through the process of opting out.

“If you do choose to resign your membership we will notify any agency that you work through as soon as we receive your certified letter notifying us of your resignation. Until then the agency is required to deduct your dues payment from your paycheck,” Smith said in an email signed “in solidarity.”

SEIU urged Katz to reconsider, pitching perks like deals on credit cards and travel. The union also touted the contract’s paid time off and a higher wage floor, though Katz and many other PCAs already earn more than the $10.75 hourly minimum.

“Home-care workers may choose not to be members of the Union. If they do, they no longer enjoy any of the rights and privileges of membership,” said the letter signed by Sumer Spika, an SEIU organizer and home-care worker.

But Katz turned to a different opt-out option. The care recipients she helps have since switched to another state plan, under which PCAs cannot be union members, due to employment laws.

“They (care recipients) didn’t want to deal with the union. They didn’t want them calling anymore, they didn’t want them hounding them,” said Belisle. “And they believe that their salary and tracking information the union wants, their address, their phone numbers and everything else, they don’t believe they (unions) have a right to them.”

Altogether, eight care recipients at the agency have switched to the non-union PCA plan. The domino effect resulted in union dues deductions from three of Adena’s 50 or so home-care workers — $12 for Katz — in the current payroll.

“I just got an email from the union,” Katz said. “I told them I’m not even returning this junk that you’re telling me I have to do certified mail, because I’m switching services.”

This article was originally published by Watchdog.org on July 20, 2015.

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