On Monday morning, a group of about 10 home health care workers and people with disabilities headed from Chicago to Washington D.C. as the U.S. Supreme Court prepared to hear oral arguments in a case that could affect 27,000 home health care workers in Illinois.
The oral arguments in the case — Harris vs. Quinn — are scheduled for Tuesday, and the implications are significant for public-worker unions and for nearly 30,000 seniors and people with disabilities in Illinois who use the services to live independently.
In Illinois, home care workers who provide services to frail senior citizens and people with disabilities are represented by the union SEIU Healthcare Illinois and Indiana. Workers aren’t required to join the union, but if they don’t they must still pay “fair share” fees to help cover the costs of union negotiating. About 40 percent of home health workers are not in the union, some because they are new and haven’t yet signed up. The “fair share” fees are about a third less than union dues.
The named plaintiff is Pamela H. Harris, an in-home personal care assistant, who is represented by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, which files lawsuits against unions and whose mission is “to eliminate coercive union power and compulsory unionism abuses through strategic litigation, public information, and education programs.” Unions say the foundation systematically tries to weaken or eliminate collective bargaining around the country.
The plaintiffs say the “fair share” provision violates their First Amendment rights. They also argue the home care workers are not true public employes because individual consumers — not the state — have the right to hire and fire them.
The Cato Institute, which filed a brief in the case, says, “the forcible unionization of home health care workers serves none of the compelling purposes for public-sector unionization that have been articulated by the Supreme Court.”
Personal assistant Flora Johnson speaks at a Chicago press conference Monday as she leads a delegation to Washington, D.C., to hear oral arguments in Harris vs. Quinn. (SEIU photo)
The union says the lawsuit is simply an effort to weaken the union and that the higher benefits that have been negotiated since the workers were organized have improved the level of care and reduced what was very high turnover. The union also argues workers who do not join the union should not be allowed a free ride on the collective bargaining work of others.
Many seniors and people with disabilities support the union because higher wages have attracted better workers and improved the services to the point that many people who would otherwise be forced into nursing homes are able to stay in their homes, the union says.
“Elements of stability are good wages and benefits,” said Gary Arnold, public relations coordinator for Access Living, a nonprofit disability rights and service organization. “You get better [home care worker] candidates, and you get people to stay on the job. … A negative ruling might [weaken] the heart of what has been built up over the past decade.”
Workers now are paid $11.65 an hour, compared with $1 an hour for some services 30 years ago when they didn’t quality for the minimum wage, the union says. The wage will go up to $13 an hour by the end of the year. The minimum wage in Illinois is $8.25 an hour.
A friend-of-the court brief in support of the union positions was filed by the American Association of People with Disabilities, the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, the Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, the National Council on Aging and other disability and senior organizations. Additional groups from around the country have filed about 20 additional friend-of-the-court briefs.
The district court dismissed the plaintiff’s claims, and so did the 7th District U.S. Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court has two issues to resolve: first, whether home care workers who are not in the union may be assessed “fair share” fees and, second, whether the state was correct in declaring them to be state employees.
In 2003, then-Gov Rod Blagojevich issued an order saying all home health care workers in the Home Services Program, who are paid by the state and whose training is overseen by the Illinois Department of Human Services, are in fact state employees. A few months later, the workers voted to unionize.
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