Advocates for disabled people and the constitution crashed the first meeting Friday of an executive working group tasked with finding the best way for personal care assistants to collectively bargain.
At issue are two executive orders signed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy in September that provide a path for state day care workers and personal care attendants to organize and gain collective bargaining rights.
The orders established working groups to make recommendations to the governor regarding the best way to structure bargaining rights for the groups.
But some say the groups shouldn’t unionize and question why the governor did not appoint anyone with a disability to a group whose recommendations will likely have an impact on the disabled community. Several opponents of the orders sat in on the group’s first meeting.
Cathy Ludlum of Manchester, who suffers from spinal muscular atrophy, said she didn’t understand why the order was necessary.
“It is not clear how unionizing personal assistance will advance their situation. A lot of them don’t want it,” she said. “None of the ones I know want it.”
Stephen Mendelsohn, who is on the autism spectrum, said he felt the deck was stacked against disabled people.
“Unlike with the childcare working group, with this group they didn’t include anybody with a disability or anybody who was a personal care attendant in the group,” he said.
Malloy’s spokesman, Andrew Doba, said the reason the governor established the group was to facilitate a conversation on the issue.
“There will be plenty of time for input from all interested parties, especially the disabled community,” he said.
Mendelsohn said Malloy was developing a pattern of insensitivity toward people with disabilities. He cited the governor’s Thanksgiving message “where he talked about people ‘being afflicted with handicaps’ and ‘hovering on the edges of society.’”
Claude Holcomb, who communicated by spelling out words, pointing to each letter on a board, asked what the workers will gain if a union steps in. Unionized PCA workers in other states still have no medical benefits, he said.
“Who is getting fat? The union,” he said.
However, Malloy defended the order last month, saying PCA workers are not getting the opportunity to bargain for themselves.
“All’s I’m saying is if those folks want that opportunity, I believe in America they should have that opportunity,” he said. “Let’s be very clear, what we’re really talking about is people that are in large numbers employed by agencies that specifically treat them as employees, but under the guise of calling them independent contractors deny them the ability to negotiate.”
Then there’s the constitutional objections. Debra Stevenson, an attorney for the Constitution Lobby, said the executive orders were unconstitutional. The legislature had considered a bill that would have accomplished the same thing, but the bill never made it out of committee, she said.
“The whole premise is faulty when it’s based on an unconstitutional action,” she added. “In particular setting up the election process to begin with, that is not within the authority of the governor to do.”
Both groups listened as the working group discussed some of the problems it faces. Christopher Drake, deputy legal counsel to the governor, said the funding structure of the programs makes the group’s task a difficult process.
“Above all it is important to keep the self-directed nature of this care in place. It is very important that the care that is being provided continues to be directed by the clients,” he said.
But that poses a challenge because each client is considered an individual employer, he said. One possible solution is to create a unified employer for the workers to bargain against, he said.
Drake said the group must also make sure that it makes no recommendation that would change the Medicaid funding the state receives. The working group should also keep in mind there’s a limited amount of money for the PCA program, he said.
“Right now there is a finite pool of money to draw from. So for instance, if you increase the wages for the PCAs it may have the effect of decreasing the number of hours and that’s an undesirable outcome,” he said.
Larry Fox, a consultant assigned to the group, said the group should refrain from trying to reinvent the wheel. There are successful models in other states the group should consider and make changes as needed to fit Connecticut, he said.
The group is expected to make it recommendation to Malloy by February. However, Drake said that deadline could be extended if the group felt it needed more time to complete its work.