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Lawmakers ponder $97 million home-care bill

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    Lawmakers ponder $97 million home-care bill

    Sunday, February 23, 2003 - 12:00 a.m. Pacific

    Legislature 2003
    Lawmakers ponder $97 million home-care bill
    By Ralph Thomas
    Seattle Times Olympia bureau

    OLYMPIA - An expensive, two-year campaign could soon pay off for the Service Employees International Union and its newly organized army of state-paid home health-care workers.

    Though the state faces its worst budget deficit in decades, the push is on in the Legislature to come up with more than $97 million to cover the first-ever contract between the state and its home-care workers.

    Union leaders say the two-year contract will bring long-overdue improvements for home-care workers, such as health benefits and a $2.07 raise that would boost their pay to $9.75 an hour by 2005.

    Hearing this week

    The House Appropriations Committee has scheduled a hearing Thursday on HB 1777, legislation to approve the home-care workers' contract. It will be held at 3:30 p.m. in House Hearing Room A. The union also stands to make big gains. If lawmakers approve the new contract, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) would collect millions of dollars in new dues.

    The SEIU, which bankrolled the citizen initiative that enabled home-care workers to unionize, recently doubled its membership in Washington when it successfully brought all 26,000 of the workers into its fold. The membership boost and added dues could further bolster the union's aggressive expansion nationwide. The SEIU is particularly targeting public-sector health-care workers. Some 20 percent of the union's 1.5 million members nationwide are home-care workers.

    As part of the joint state-federal Medicaid program, home-care workers are paid to help elderly and disabled people with the daily routines of living, such as cooking, bathing, getting dressed and taking medications. Nearly two-thirds of the state's home-care workers are being paid to care for family members.

    "I don't think anyone would deny that home-care wages are low and they should get a raise," said Senate Ways and Means Chairman Dino Rossi, R-Issaquah. "The difficulty is we don't have $97 million lying around."

    A need for workers

    With no health-care benefits and pay that barely exceeds minimum wage, turnover is high among home-care workers. Health-care advocates say it is becoming increasingly difficult to find qualified home-care workers, and they point out that the need is expected to soar as baby boomers grow old.

    If lawmakers approve the new home-care contract, most of the credit will go to the SEIU and its dogged political efforts.

    The union began its push in early 2001, when it pressed for legislation to allow home-care workers to unionize. At the time, home-care workers were considered independent contractors of the state and not true employees, and therefore had no rights to organize or bargain collectively.

    Lawmakers balked at the SEIU-backed bill, so the union turned to the voters with Initiative 775. The measure's token opposition had little chance against the union's $1 million campaign.

    Last summer, in the largest public-union vote in state history, home-care workers voted overwhelmingly to join the SEIU. The union's membership in Washington instantly bulged from 30,000 - mostly nurses, other hospital workers, school employees and janitors - to nearly 60,000.

    Within weeks, the union began negotiating a contract with the Home Care Quality Authority, a new state agency set up under I-775 to oversee home-care workers. By early November, the two sides had reached an agreement, which the workers ratified less than a month later.

    Meanwhile, the SEIU continued working its political angles. During last fall's election, the union handed out nearly $250,000 in campaign donations - aimed mostly at helping union-friendly Democrats. The support helped Democrats expand their majority in the state House. But Republicans eked out a one-seat majority in the Senate.

    Despite the divided Legislature, union leaders are optimistic they can convince lawmakers to approve the more than $97 million needed to cover the contract.

    "Home-care workers have waited decades for a measure of economic justice," said SEIU spokesman Adam Glickman.

    On the opening day of the Legislature, some 350 home-care workers and clients rallied outside the Capitol. The union's purple T-shirts - many emblazoned with the phrase "Invisible no more" - are a common sight around the Legislature.

    Sally Easterwood-Wilbon, a home-care worker from North Seattle who served on the union's bargaining team, said the contract will help clients find and keep better-qualified workers, and will ultimately save money.

    "If we're not there to take care of these people in their homes, it's going to cost the state an awful lot to have them go to assisted-living and nursing homes," said Easterwood-Wilbon, who quit her job to care for her ailing 83-year-old father.

    Health, injury coverage

    Aside from promising home-care workers a 21 percent pay increase over the next two years, the contract also offers state-subsidized health insurance for those who work more than half time. And for the first time, workers would get state coverage for injuries suffered on the job.

    Some lawmakers want to push the contract through soon to keep it from getting bogged down in the looming budget fracas. But budget leaders say the cost of the contract should be weighed alongside the numerous state programs that face drastic spending cuts.

    Faced with a shortfall that could top $2 billion over the next two years, lawmakers are considering slashing health-care assistance to the poor, laying off hundreds of state employees and dumping some high-profile programs, such as the state library.

    Still, Democratic House Speaker Frank Chopp said finding money for the home-care contract is one of his top priorities.

    And Senate Majority Leader Jim West said if Senate Republicans reject the contract, it would be because of the state's budget mess, not to settle a political score.

    The union tried hard to topple West last fall, but the veteran Spokane Republican won his race, the most expensive in state history.

    "They spent $20,000 saying I was a bad guy," said West. "But that's the union, that's not the workers."

    West said his father used to hire home-care workers to take care of his mother, who suffered from multiple sclerosis and has since passed away. "I've seen how hard these people work; I know how difficult their job is," he said.

    Union growing fast

    If lawmakers approve the contract, it would mark the latest in a string of victories for the SEIU. Home-care workers in Oregon voted to join the union last winter, and the SEIU in recent years has added tens of thousands of home-care workers in California.

    Paul Clark, a professor of labor studies and industrial relations at Penn State University, said the SEIU has been one of the nation's fastest-growing unions, in part because of its emphasis on organizing workers in government and health care, among the few job sectors that are still growing.

    The SEIU also spends more money than most unions on building its membership.

    "They are a very aggressive union that has made organizing new workers a big priority," said Clark.

    David Rolf, president of the new Local 775, which represents home-care and long-term-care workers, said dues rates for new members haven't been set yet.

    Other SEIU members in Washington are charged 1.9 percent of their pay.

    If the same rate is applied to the state's 26,000 home-care workers, the union's dues collections would increase by more than $12 million over the next two years.

    Rolf said some of that money would go toward the union's ongoing effort to organize more workers. But he said the union typically spends about three-fourths of its money on services to members, such as contract negotiations and representing workers in grievances or worker's compensation disputes.

    Union officials also said it is unlikely they would make home-care workers begin paying dues until the contract is funded.

    If the Legislature rejects the new contract, the union and the home-care authority will have to return to the bargaining table.

    "We're not going to go away," said Easterwood-Wilbon. "We've been invisible for too long."

    Gee, I wonder if family caregivers can join? [img]/forum/images/smilies/rolleyes.gif[/img]

    Tough times don't last - tough people do.


      I think so Marm.

      Nearly two-thirds of the state's home-care workers are being paid to care for family members.


        Thanks, Sen - That's what i get for trying to read anything seriously at 5 am! [img]/forum/images/smilies/biggrin.gif[/img]

        Tough times don't last - tough people do.