The case of the maltreated Illinois caregivers
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Who’s hurting the caregivers in Illinois and, by extension, the people who need their services?
Yes, there’s serious harm being done to some of the state’s lowest-paid workers, and to the poor, the sick and the disabled, those who require their labor.
The evidence leads to only one suspect. He’s known to frequent the governor’s mansion in Springfield, and nine other homes.
Mind you, no one would suggest Gov. Bruce Rauner is culpable in a criminal way. Some former Illinois governors have set a high bar for that behavior. But when it comes to a kind of cruel oafishness, Rauner is in a non-felonious league by himself. He has yet to propose, negotiate or enact a responsible state budget, choosing to hold certain spending hostage for the sake of a job-killing agenda. He’s been cutting deep by withholding payments from the agencies that work with our most vulnerable citizens.
What’s his motive? Rauner believes working people in Illinois have too much say against their bosses, so he wants to undercut organized labor in the belief that employers will flock to a state where wages and benefits are collapsing. It’s not working, but on he goes in a cloud of zealotry, demanding that the Legislature accept demands that he calls reforms, but are really anti-labor.
The Rauner Administration is negotiating pay and benefits with SEIU Healthcare Illinois, the union that represents home caregivers. They already earn poverty-level wages, but Rauner wants to freeze the rates, take away their health insurance and forbid overtime, because a federal appeals court ruling held that time-and- a-half rates beyond the standard work week should be enforced.
In Illinois, Rauner’s stance means that families who qualify for state-subsidized care have to find additional help if they need services beyond 35 hours a week. If they are providing at-home care on their own, it means they’ll receive less for their 24/7 duty.
Beyond that, there’s Rauner taking other caregivers, their clients and the agencies that arrange for the care as hostages in his budget standoff with the Legislature. A group of 64 social service agencies, with more to join in, on May 4 sued the governor and the relevant state agencies, saying they are owed $100 million for work performed while the state has had no budget.
The suit, filed in Cook County Circuit Court, alleges that Rauner unlawfully entered into and enforced contracts with the agencies when there was no money appropriated for them. Calling themselves the Pay Now Illinois Coalition, its members provide a wide range of services, including counseling, help for the mentally ill and housing for the homeless. Without state money, some groups must decide if they will shut their doors. Larger organizations have the option of staying out of Illinois.
It means a social safety net in shreds, layoffs of low-paid workers who then go on public aid,
and people with home care being forced into nursing homes, where the daily bill for taxpayers
can be four times higher. The state’s economy is in harm’s way, too. An Innovation Illinois study
in 2015 found that state support for caregiver programs generated $5.3 billion for the economy
and supported 210,000 direct and indirect jobs. The report said every dollar of state spending
on the programs resulted in $3.74 of economic activity.
Rauner and his friends work hard to overlook the obvious. The Illinois Policy Institute, which
aspires to be the think tank for robber barons, looked at the state of the state’s caregivers and concluded they are being harmed by their union, the SEIU! The article, published by several Illinois papers, reasoned that because SEIU has the temerity to bargain for better wages and working conditions, it is forcing the “fiscally strapped” state to limit caregivers’ hours. There was nothing about Rauner not doing his job. Although to the IPI, Rauner probably clocked in by having his family foundation give it at least $625,000 since 2009.
“Fiscally strapped” Illinois was doing better before Rauner arrived, recording job growth, cutting its bills backlog and earning better reviews from the bond-rating agencies. All those are values the tycoons say they want. But with Rauner grinding down working people, the progress from before is being erased.
A few days ago, Rauner expressed support for the service agencies suing the state, saying their financial plight was “ridiculous.” But he was the one who vetoed their budget. The longer this hostage crisis goes, the nuttier it gets.
David Roeder is a Research Fellow at Innovation Illinois, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to progressive public policies that advance equitable economic growth. He was a longtime business writer and columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times and served in the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.