Elderly and disabled people are confused as they wait for the state to explain how they will receive the same level of care while paying higher union-negotiated wages to their personal care attendants (PCAs).
This week I spoke to a woman (she asked that I not use her name or the name of her loved one who receives care) who was trying to figure out whether the recent Harris v. Quinn Supreme Court decision meant she could continue in the current contract between her and the PCAs she employs on behalf of her loved one. Short answer: it doesn’t.
She was told by Allied Community Resources, one of the quasi-public agencies that oversees payment of PCAs for the state, that the PCAs Medicaid rate is $15.16 an hour, which is the around $12-an-hour minimum wage negotiated for PCAs, plus union dues and other taxes.
Previously, the state paid her PCAs $10.50 an hour, which, with taxes, came to $11.66 an hour. The hourly wages were charged toward the $5,800 a month she receives from the state to care for her loved one.
At this point she has been told the hourly rate will increase, but she has not been told whether she will see her monthly stipend increased, so she is unsure if she will be able to continue to care for her loved one outside an institutional setting.
Cathy Ludlum, who has raised concerns about the unionization of PCAs since the state announced its decision to allow SEIU 1199 to pursue the cause, said it is still unclear how the state intends to stay under the mandated caps for the amount of money paid to those who receive home care.
Ludlum has spinal muscular atrophy, and she fought for her PCA’s right to refuse unionization. She, and others who receive state money, were promised their level of care would not be affected by the pay increases for their PCAs.
A letter from the PCA Council to consumers on March 28, 2014, tried to explain how the clients who receive these services would not be impacted by the decision to increase payment.
“The public act requires the State to maintain the service levels that consumers receive and to appropriate funds to support the collective bargaining agreement if it is approved,” the letter reads. “There is a specific consumer rights provision in the collective bargaining agreement that protects your rights with regard to the employment of individuals who support you or your family members.”
Despite Republican efforts to increase PCA pay without resorting to unionization, and despite the concerns raised by the groups who receive the care, the labor-dominated legislature pushed the matter through in 2012.
All along, Ludlum and other advocates who fought the forced unionization said they didn’t oppose workers’ right to unionize, but what they did oppose was forcing individual PCAs to pay union dues or agency fees even if they did not want to join the union.
Under Harris v. Quinn, which was handed down at the end of June, the court found PCAs are different than other state employees because of their relationship to their employers — the populations who receive money from the state to pay them — so they cannot be forced to join a union or pay union dues.
Under Connecticut law, no one who works in a unionized workplace can opt-out of union membership. Half of the states have adopted “Right to Work” laws, which recognize an individual’s right to freedom of association, meaning the right to decide whether to belong to a union.
Here, people who don’t want to pay union dues or support the union cause can only opt-out of the political portion of their dues. They still have to pay agency fees to a union regardless of their preference under the assumption that because the union is negotiating on their behalf, they have to support it.
All that said, Harris v. Quinn does not undo the new labor contract negotiated for PCAs by the state.
Ludlum said she has been promised by the state that she, and other recipients of state funds, will be “held harmless.”
She said the state has communicated very little about how things will change for those receiving care under the new arrangement — particularly for those who are already receiving the maximum allowable under state law.
“Those at the cost cap have been told verbally that if they raise rates, not to worry about becoming too expensive for the program,” she said.
What that means, however, is unclear. Lawmakers had the opportunity to raise the cap in the last legislative session, but they didn’t.
Responding to an inquiry yesterday, state Department of Social Services spokesman David Dearborn said the department intends to stick to its promise to those receiving care.
“Their services cannot be reduced and there is no out-of-pocket obligation or impact to the beneficiaries,” he wrote in an email.
When asked for clarification — whether that means the state will give more money to the quasi-public agencies who manage the care so they can pass that on to beneficiaries — he said yes.
Apparently that message hasn’t reached all of those who rely on these services.
The state has said that it will not collect union dues — “agency fees” — from PCAs who chose not to join the union, until it figures out how Harris v. Quinn affects Connecticut.
In the meantime, the 4,000 PCAs (out of 6,500) who chose not to join the union will likely enjoy getting that extra money in their paychecks.
Suzanne Bates is a writer living in South Windsor with her family. While traveling across the country as an Air Force spouse, she worked for news organizations including the Associated Press, the New Hampshire Union Leader, and Good Morning America Weekend. She recently completed a research fellowship at the Yankee Institute. Follow her on Twitter @suzebates.