Harris v. Quinn Threatens Fair Share Dues in Connecticut (Updated)

Melinda Tuhus

Connecticut Governor Dannel P. Malloy announces a collective bargaining agreement between the state of Connecticut and home-based childcare providers in January 2014. Home-based childcare providers and other "partial state employees" could soon lose union benefits in the aftermath of the Supreme Court's recent decision in Harris v. Quinn

On June 30, the Supreme Court ruled in Har­ris v. Quinn that home health­care work­ers in Illi­nois who declined to join the Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union rep­re­sent­ing them did not have to pay a fair share” pro­vi­sion for the ben­e­fits they’ve reaped from the orga­ni­za­tion. Tech­ni­cal­ly speak­ing, the Supreme Court only con­sid­ered Illi­nois care employ­ees in its deci­sion; how­ev­er, activists fear that the rul­ing has poten­tial con­se­quences in a vari­ety of sec­tors—and care work­ers in oth­er states are watch­ing the fall­out espe­cial­ly closely.

Those in Con­necti­cut have par­tic­u­lar cause for con­cern. The day after the Har­ris v. Quinn deci­sion was announced, the first-ever con­tract for 6,500 home care staff in the state came into effect. And the sim­i­lar­i­ties between the sit­u­a­tion in Con­necti­cut and the one in Illi­nois are not lost on the Con­necti­cut care work­ers’ union, SEIU1199, or its poten­tial foes. 

In Illi­nois, the work­ers in ques­tion were con­sid­ered par­tial pub­lic employ­ees,” because they receive pay­ment through Med­ic­aid but take care of clients — often their own fam­i­ly mem­bers — in the clients’ own homes. This was prompt­ed by a 2009 exec­u­tive order from Gov. Pat Quinn (D) clas­si­fy­ing home care work­ers as state employ­ees for the sole pur­pose of union­iza­tion, but exclud­ing them from oth­er state ben­e­fits. From the Supreme Court’s per­spec­tive, this dis­crep­an­cy was enough to exempt them from pay­ing admin­is­tra­tive costs for their pro­tec­tion; ful­ly pub­lic employ­ees are still oblig­at­ed under Abood v. Detroit Board of Edu­ca­tion to do so.

In 2011, Con­necti­cut Gov. Dan­nel P. Mal­loy (D) issued a sim­i­lar order to Quinn’s 2009 decree giv­ing home care work­ers the right to bar­gain col­lec­tive­ly. Though the con­ser­v­a­tive Yan­kee Insti­tute for Pub­lic Pol­i­cy and assort­ed indi­vid­ual con­sumers of home care ser­vices were quick to chal­lenge Malloy’s order, the Con­necti­cut Supe­ri­or Court upheld it. The next year, the Con­necti­cut leg­is­la­ture cod­i­fied and expand­ed the order, spec­i­fy­ing that con­sumers can hire and fire their union­ized per­son­al care atten­dants. And like those in Illi­nois, those atten­dants do not receive any of the same ben­e­fits as state work­ers, though they are state-funded.

Per­son­al care atten­dants shall not be con­sid­ered state employ­ees,” the law explains. They shall be exempt from any and all pro­vi­sions of the gen­er­al statutes cre­at­ing rights, oblig­a­tions, priv­i­leges or immu­ni­ties to state employ­ees as a result of or inci­dent to their state service.”

Moshe Mar­vit, an attor­ney and fel­low at The Cen­tu­ry Foun­da­tion, a pro­gres­sive think tank focused on labor and employ­ment issues, has writ­ten exten­sive­ly about Har­ris for In These Times. About Connecticut’s decree, he tells In These Times now, That sounds awful­ly sim­i­lar to the Illi­nois law, so I would think that Har­ris would apply.” Indeed, since the rul­ing, Repub­li­can law­mak­ers in the state have begun clam­or­ing in favor of that interpretation.

Such an exten­sion could be dev­as­tat­ing for the nascent union. Although Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Direc­tor Jen­nifer Schnei­der reports that SEIU Local 1199 NE has about 2,400 mem­bers, its con­tract cov­ers all 6,500 of Connecticut’s home care work­ers — and the local will rely on all their fair share” fees to keep things run­ning smoothly.

This is espe­cial­ly impor­tant, union lead­ers say, because the new con­tract is a vital part of improv­ing prospects for home care providers.

Schnei­der says that the agree­ment includes a 50-cents-per-hour raise that will take effect for all work­ers by ear­ly August; restora­tion of a wage cut from last year; a labor/​management com­mit­tee; an anti-dis­crim­i­na­tion clause; a griev­ance pro­ce­dure; paid time off; ori­en­ta­tion and train­ing; and a joint work­ing group that will make rec­om­men­da­tions and issue a report in 2015 on the best ways to pro­vide work­ers’ com­pen­sa­tion. The con­tract also ini­ti­ates a study of health­care options for the work­ers, hun­dreds of whom have already gained access to health insur­ance through the Afford­able Care Act thanks to union out­reach and edu­ca­tion, accord­ing to an SEIU statement.

And work­ers are con­fi­dent that these improve­ments will extend to their clients, too. In a press release issued by the union the day of the Supreme Court deci­sion, home care provider Bet­sey Wingate said, Before we formed our union no one knew how dif­fi­cult it was for con­sumers to find peo­ple to take care of them because the pay was so low and undependable.“

Wingate felt deter­mined that care staff could over­come Har­ris’ poten­tial­ly detri­men­tal effect on the union’s progress. She con­tin­ued, When home care work­ers unit­ed and told our sto­ries we made some real changes. I final­ly felt like I wasn’t alone and I had the pow­er to make a dif­fer­ence in my life and my family’s life. That isn’t going to stop because of this court deci­sion. We won’t go back to those days. I’m going to keep fight­ing and stay unit­ed with my fel­low home care workers.”

State Attor­ney Gen­er­al George Jepsen issued a state­ment imme­di­ate­ly after the Har­ris rul­ing say­ing his office had filed an ami­cus brief in sup­port of the union’s posi­tion in the Har­ris case. He is review­ing the deci­sion to see what effect, if any, that Har­ris v Quinn may have on home health­care work­ers in the state of Connecticut.”

For now, Schnei­der says the con­tract is so new that, Even our mem­ber­ship dues haven’t tak­en effect yet, much less admin­is­tra­tive costs. At this point we don’t know how it’s going to affect fair share fees for work­ers in Connecticut.”

Update: On July 18, SEIU Local 1199 NE released the fol­low­ing statement:

The Har­ris v. Quinn deci­sion applies to work­ers in Illi­nois and does not involve this bar­gain­ing unit. But, because of the uncer­tain­ty cre­at­ed by the deci­sion, we have decid­ed not to col­lect fair-share fees. We are deter­mined to work togeth­er with the state and our allies to make what­ev­er changes are nec­es­sary to strength­en and improve our state’s home care sys­tem, so that home care work­ers can con­tin­ue to have a strong voice for good jobs and qual­i­ty home care.

Melin­da Tuhus is an inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ist with 25 years of expe­ri­ence in print and radio, includ­ing In These Times, The New York Times, Free Speech Radio News and pub­lic radio stations.
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