Forcing relatives to join a union to provide care is wrong

Who would have thought that parents would have to join a union in order to take care of their disabled children? But that’s the case in Washington.

Columnist

Who would have thought that parents would have to join a union in order to take care of their disabled children? But that’s the case in Washington.

Stay with me here, this is a little complicated – but it’s important because what is happening in our state is just plain wrong.

In 2001, Washington voters approved a union-backed initiative that created a state home healthcare authority and gave home healthcare workers the right to bargain collectively. In 2003, the state contracted with the Service Employees International Union to provide homecare services to clients in the Medicaid system. Because the governor is considered the “employer,” all of these union workers are considered state employees.

Until recently, relatives who took care of their disabled family members through private homecare companies were exempt from this arrangement. Not anymore.

Across the state, thousands of parents and other relatives caring for a family member are actually employed by private homecare agencies. The arrangement benefits both the caregivers and the agencies. The agencies, through their contracts with the state Department of Social and Health Services, get reimbursed for the care provided to clients. That same contract requires the agencies to provide their employees with health insurance, sick leave and vacation benefits. In addition, relatives who work for private agencies are assured that one of their colleagues will be available to take over for them if they get sick or take time off.

But now, all that has changed.

In the 2009-11 budget, the Legislature decided that private homecare agencies will no longer be reimbursed by Medicaid for services provided by employees caring for their own relatives.

This gives those relatives only one choice: stay with the agency and turn the care of their loved ones over to someone else or leave and become an “independent provider.” And in Washington, all independent homecare providers who work with Medicaid clients are required to join the union.

The state claims the move will save taxpayers millions of dollars because the hourly reimbursement rate for independent providers is less than that of homecare agency employees. That’s not the case. Because the SEIU caregivers are considered state employees, the taxpayers will pick up the tab for their health insurance premiums, more than offsetting any cost savings.

In addition, as independent providers, those relatives will take a pay cut, lose their sick leave, vacation and unemployment insurance benefits – and they’ll have to pay union dues to SEIU.

The only winner here is the union, which stands to gain thousands of new members, with the resulting increase in income and political clout. In effect, the Legislature is forcing home healthcare workers to stop caring for their loved ones in the Medicaid program unless they join the union. (The union scored another big victory recently when voters approved a taxpayer-funded training requirement for all homecare workers. The state awarded the exclusive rights to that program to SEIU.)

In the last legislative session, state lawmakers tried to craft an exemption for parental caregivers, but DSHS says it was written in a way that runs afoul of federal age discrimination laws. On June 3, DSHS announced it would not allow the exemption and relatives have until July 1 to make up their minds – stop caring for your disabled family members or join the union.

State lawmakers have expressed a willingness to rewrite the exemption in a way that will pass muster with federal law, but that can’t happen until the Legislature reconvenes in January.

In the wake of complaints to federal authorities by disabled clients and their relatives, state administrators have reportedly offered to “sweeten the pot” for caregivers who leave private agencies and join the union. One proposal would forego the pay cut for those people, but that would be unfair to current union members who would be making a lower wage than the incoming members.

In an effort to suspend this process until state legislators can act, lawyers reportedly say they will petition federal authorities for a temporary restraining order or commence with a lawsuit.

While no one knows the outcome of those efforts, one thing is clear: Forcing relatives to give up caring for their loved ones unless they join a union is just plain wrong.

Don Brunell is the president of the Association of Washington Business.

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