ANALYSIS: Missouri unions seek to organize in-home care

Sunday, April 12, 2009 | 10:08 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — Voters approved it overwhelmingly, but Missouri's Republican-led legislature is refusing to fund a new council created to help coordinate in-home care providers.

That means the council likely will be unable to fulfill its mandate to create a statewide registry of personal care attendants, provide training to the workers or offer referrals to families needing someone to care for their relatives.

But the lack of state funding is unlikely to stop an effort to unionize personal care providers.

Thousands of disabled and elderly residents are able to remain in their homes, instead of moving to nursing homes, because paid personal care attendants help them with daily activities such as bathing, dressing, cooking and cleaning.

Those attendants often are subsidized with state money but work through scores of independent entities, making it hard for them to form a collective union bargaining unit.

The ballot measure approved by 75 percent of voters last November established the Missouri Quality Homecare Council as an umbrella organization that can be treated as an employer for the sake of a unionized bargaining unit. The Service Employees International Union poured $1.7 million into the campaign.

The ballot summary shown to voters said nothing about making it easier for in-home care providers to unionize. It only mentioned the measure would help the disabled and elderly remain in their homes by creating a state council to ensure the availability of in-home care services.

Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, whose campaign received $150,000 from SEIU last October, so far has appointed people to nine of the 11 slots on the Missouri Quality Homecare Council. Nixon recommended spending $360,000 in next year's budget for the council to hire staff, buy equipment and run an office.

But the House passed a budget with no money for the council. Last week, the Senate Appropriations Committee also decided, with little comment, to leave the council out of the budget for the 2010 fiscal year.

Committee chairman Sen. Gary Nodler, R-Joplin, said simply, "I don't believe there is sufficient support in the legislature to fund it."

The committee's ranking minority member, Sen. Joan Bray, D-St. Louis, suggested that Missouri Republicans — who generally have been at odds with unions — are striking back at the union for supporting the ballot measure.

"This is clearly a totally political reaction to something the voters passed," Bray said.

The new council falls under the budget of the Department of Health and Senior Services. But unless lawmakers specifically allot money for it, the council will not get any money or staff from the department, said director Margaret Donnelly, a former Democratic House member.

That hasn't stopped SEIU from teaming up with another union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, to try to organize an estimated 16,300 personal care attendants in Missouri.

"There is a movement under way; it's not going to be derailed," said AFSCME spokesman Joe Lawrence. "Folks are coming together."

The two unions jointly formed the new Missouri Home Care Union, which submitted a petition March 12 to the State Board of Mediation for an election certifying it as the official representative of personal care attendants.

Under the terms of the ballot measure, the union had to submit the signatures of just 10 percent of the workers in the proposed bargaining unit instead of the standard 30 percent.

The mediation board has asked the health department to provide a statewide list of personal care attendants receiving state funding by April 24, so that the signatures can be verified. The union expects an election to occur in May.

Even without staff or an office, the appointed state council still could ratify any agreement reached between bargainers for the union and state.

"At its core, this council is about giving consumers and workers a voice," said SEIU spokeswoman Krissi Jimroglou. "Certainly, even without funding ... if workers vote to have a union, they're going to have a voice."

The Missouri Alliance for Home Care, which represents about 250 companies that provide in-home care, opposed the ballot measure creating the state council. Executive Director Mary Schantz said the council's duties of increasing training and improving the quality of in-home care services could have been accomplished through the state Division of Senior and Disability Services.

"This ballot measure doesn't have anything to do with helping people get home service," Schantz said. "It was an initiative of the SEIU to unionize the work force."

Schantz fears a union could drive up the cost of personal care attendants to a point that some people could not afford them.

But any union-negotiated increase in wages and benefits still could be dependent on whether legislative budget writers decide to increase the state's payments to personal care providers.

Given that Republicans have been reluctant to fund the council, they may also be hesitant to fund the fruits of any council-approved contract with unionized personal care attendants.

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