House approves controversial collective bargaining proposal

The House approved a controversial proposal to give collective bargaining rights to certain home care workers and daycare providers Friday night, a matter that has galvanized union supporters and opponents, people with disabilities, child care providers and critics of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.

By passing the measure 84-57 after six hours of debate, the House resurrected the substance of two proposals that died last month after Republican legislators prevented them from being voted on in the Labor and Public Employees Committee before the committee’s deadline for taking action. Both supporters and opponents had expected they would resurface before the session ends in May, and they did Friday as an amendment to a labor bill.

Laurie Wojnarowski

Laurie Wojnarowski brought the children in her daycare to the Capitol as she urged lawmakers to vote against the bill

The bill, which now goes to the Senate, would allow for collective bargaining by day care providers paid through the state’s Care 4 Kids program and personal care attendants who provide home care to seniors and people with disabilities and whose pay is funded by state programs.

It would build upon two executive orders Malloy issued in September that allowed both groups of workers to unionize. The orders didn’t give either group collective bargaining rights, but allowed the unions to take part in nonbinding discussions with the state. They also set up working groups to make recommendations about how to structure collective bargaining rights for the two groups of workers, who are paid with state funds but are considered to be employed by the people they serve.

Since Malloy issued the orders, daycare workers and personal care attendants voted to join unions. Two separate groups have challenged the orders in court, arguing that Malloy overstepped his authority in issuing them. And people with strong feelings on both sides have made regular trips to the state Capitol complex to voice their opinions, including Friday.

Last-minute lobbying

Several hours before the debate began, Laurie Wojnarowski stood outside the House chamber — as close as people who aren’t staff or legislators can get — with a stack of papers and six children in tow. On her chest she wore a paper sign: “Vote no! on amendment #3138 H.B. 5312.”

The youngsters with her, who attend her Bristol daycare, wore similar signs on their shirts. Wojnarowski tried to get passing lawmakers to take her handouts — a copy of the amendment with “VOTE NO!” written in red.

“Please vote no!” she called as she thrust the papers on a reluctant Rep. Ernest Hewett, D-New London. “Let the courts handle it!”

Wojnarowski, who has been a licensed child care provider since 1997, said she tries to keep her fees low and won’t turn away families who can’t afford it. “I’m not in it to get rich. I’m in it because I love children,” she said.

But she said unionization has made her stop accepting children whose care is subsidized through Care 4 Kids. She sees Malloy’s orders, and the legislative proposal, as an encroachment on her as a self-employed business owner.

“Who are they going to go after next?” she said. “It needs to stop. This is such an overreach of government power, it makes me sick.”

Other opponents in the Capitol Friday included people with disabilities who have raised concerns that a union could undermine the nature of the home care programs, which emphasize the ability of the people receiving services to direct their own care.

Pat Tyler, who has a daughter with developmental disabilities and hires workers through a state program, took issue with the way the matter had been handled, starting with an executive order and potentially ending with an amendment added after the initial bills were killed in committee. She said the lack of transparency put people with disabilities, family members and daycare providers at a disadvantage.

She called the proposal “a big step backwards for the disability movement,” saying it takes away the choices and flexibility people with disabilities and their families have fought for, including the ability to determine the wages for their staff.

“I would love my daughter’s staff to get everything possible. I put her life in their hands,” she said. “If the legislature sincerely believes that people who are PCAs don’t get enough money and they don’t get enough benefits and whatever the concerns are, they have the total authority to appropriate further funds. They do not need to strip away the choices from families and people with disabilities.”

Marjorie Davis

Marjorie Davis: Unionization would give ‘discounted’ workers a voice.

Supporters gathered at the Capitol too, including personal care attendants who spoke of the challenges of not having health insurance or paid time off, and having to limit the hours they work for any one client to about 25 per week. If they work more, the client must pay worker’s compensation. The personal care attendants said they simply wanted the rights that most other workers have.

“We’re a very discounted group of workers,” Hartford resident Marjorie Davis said. She described the union as a way to bring together a fragmented, scattered workforce.

“This is going to be cohesion. It’s going to be a common voice,” she said.

Imla Eubanks, who hires personal care attendants, or PCAs, said she worries about her personal care attendant’s lack of vacation or sick time and health insurance.

“She can’t take a day off,” Eubanks, of Hartford, said. Because of the hour limit, Eubanks’ PCA works for her 25 hours a week, and another PCA works for her for three hours on the weekends.

“It’s as if we’re second class workers and it shouldn’t be that way,” said Briana Fernandez, a PCA from Manchester who said she was fired when she refused to work hours she would not get paid for.

Union supporters say giving the workers a voice could allow them to fight alongside consumers for more funding for the home care and daycare programs, improving the situations for both groups. And they say improving the pay and working conditions can help bolster workforces that are in demand.

“This bill represents a policy choice by the General Assembly that granting workers a voice will, in the long run, improve their lives and the lives of the people they serve,” Rep. Zeke Zalaski, D-Southington, co-chairman of the labor committee, said shortly after the debate began, just before 5 p.m.

House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, said daycare workers and personal care attendants do important work, and noted that lawmakers have seen evidence that they’re underpaid and need better training. But he called the bill embarrassing and questioned why it’s necessary.

“Instead of training them and paying them more, which is 1,000 percent under the jurisdiction of the very people in this chamber … we go through this enormous process that has been so disruptive to so many people, to authorize collective bargaining for those very people to come back to us and negotiate for training and more pay,” he said. “What is wrong with this picture?”

Rep. Gail Hamm, D-East Hampton, offered a response: Although the legislature has the power to appropriate funds, “We don’t, we won’t, and we haven’t.”

People generally have three ways to make their voices heard when they think lawmakers are screwing up: Lawyers, lobbyists, or labor. “Those in my experience are the ways to make priorities change,” she said.

But Rep. Craig Miner, R-Litchfield, said the bill is a convoluted way to do what Hamm suggested. “In this case, we’re trying to create an employee out of people who are not currently employees,” he said. “They work for themselves in some cases.”

Forced unionization? Or gathering information?

Opponents have described Malloy’s orders as forced unionization, and some have questioned the validity of the ballot-by-mail union elections, noting that a majority of eligible personal care attendants and daycare providers didn’t vote.

Union supporters, meanwhile, say the elections met the same standard as other American elections — the results were based on the majority of those who cast ballots.

And a legal motion filed on behalf of Malloy by the attorney general’s office characterized the governor’s orders as far more limited than critics have claimed, characterizing them as creating a way for Malloy to gather information from decentralized workforces and evaluate policy proposals about state programs.

“All [the orders] do is create mechanisms for gathering information. They provide for discussion, recommendations, and reports, nothing more,” the motion said.

The legislation would unquestionably do more. Although the daycare providers and personal care attendants are paid with state money, they’re considered to be employed by the families or people they provide services to, not the state — meaning they don’t have a common employer with whom they could collectively bargain.

The proposal would allow unions representing child care providers and PCAs to bargain with the state. The workers would not be considered state employees, and negotiations on their behalf could not address getting state employee benefits or the right of a parent or consumer to recruit, select, direct or fire a daycare provider or PCA.

Any agreement that would require additional funding to maintain existing levels of service would have to go to the legislature for approval. And, the bill says, no agreement could lead to a reduction in daycare or home care services.