Working group on collective bargaining for home care workers draws critics, supporters

The fight over unionizing home care attendants continued Wednesday as the working group charged with recommending ways to structure collective bargaining rights for the workers heard testimony from the public.

People who work as personal care attendants spoke of the challenges of doing their jobs with low pay, no benefits and no paid sick time. They and representatives for SEIU, the union seeking to represent them, said collective bargaining rights would give the workers a voice and increase the number of people available to do jobs that are increasingly in demand.

Opponents, including people with disabilities, home care workers and Republican legislators, said having a union wouldn’t necessarily improve the workers’ conditions — particularly if they have to pay dues — and could harm the close relationship between the workers and the people they work for.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy established the Personal Care Attendant Working Group through a controversial executive order issued in September. The order outlined a process for personal care attendants, or PCAs, who work in state programs to form a union to represent them in non-binding discussions over topics including compensation, training, retention and professional development.

The order also called for the working group to make recommendations on the best way to structure “collective bargaining rights and relationships” for the union representing PCAs.

Malloy has said that the order, along with a similar one for child care workers in the state’s Care 4 Kids program, begin the process for establishing collective bargaining rights, but don’t determine anything.

PCAs help seniors and people with disabilities with tasks including getting out of bed, bathing, feeding and driving to work. Malloy’s order applies to PCAs hired by individuals in Medicaid and state home care programs and paid with public funds. It would not apply to PCAs who work for home care agencies.

As they did during a hearing held by legislative Republicans, several opponents of unionizing PCAs raised objections.

Catherine Ludlum, who hires PCAs and has been vocal in opposing the unionization effort, said employers of PCAs in other states that she’s talked to have not found unionization to be helpful. She also questioned why the working group — a five-member panel appointed by the governor — did not have any PCAs or people who hire them on it.

Claude Holcomb, who hires PCAs, said attendants need good pay and benefits, but that unionization would be problematic. “Home care services are based on one-to-one relationships,” he said. “Unionizing attendants would make it more difficult for a person with a disability to train his or her attendants on their own specific needs.”

He also warned that since Medicaid funding for home care programs have caps, increasing PCAs’ pay without changing the structure of the programs would lead people to receive fewer hours of care. “Fewer hours of support may mean people will end up in a nursing home,” he said.

But Holcomb said after the meeting that he expects unionization to occur, and said he and others will have to live with it until they can show the governor and legislators the problems it creates.

PCAs, meanwhile, testified that unionization would give them a needed voice.

“I love my job,” PCA Sandra Prince told the working group. She added that she loves the woman she works for, and loves caring for people.

But she noted that she and other PCAs don’t get paid sick days or health care coverage. “We need insurance. We need health care. We need a raise,” she said.

Beatrice Drayton said the woman she works as a PCA for is in a rehabilitation facility temporarily. While she’s there, Drayton doesn’t get paid, even though she has bills to pay. Drayton said she’s trying to pick up hours working for someone else through an agency, but that it’s hard to find temporary work that will allow her be available when her employer gets home from the rehab facility.

Drayton also spoke of working for a person whose spouse also needed care, but didn’t have the funding to pay for her to work enough hours to take care of both of them. “I feel terrible,” she said, but added that she can’t work for free.

Collective bargaining rights, Drayton said, would bring people together who are in the same situation.

“Nobody is advocating for us right now,” she said.

The working group has until Feb. 1 to issue a report to Malloy.