Labor proposal passes Senate, heads for Malloy’s signature

A controversial proposal to give collective bargaining rights to certain home care workers and daycare providers is headed to the governor’s desk, completing a process begun less than seven months ago with two executive orders.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy plans to sign the bill, which passed the Senate 22 to 14 on a party-line vote after more than 6 hours of  debate Thursday.

It would allow unions representing daycare providers and personal care attendants paid through public programs to negotiate with the state. His executive orders allowed both groups of workers to form unions that could engage in nonbinding talks, but the bill would allow them to bargain collectively.

Prague Markley collective bargaining bill 5-3-12

Sen. Edith Prague answers questions from Sen. Joe Markley during a debate on the collective bargaining bill

Malloy’s orders, issued after legislation failed during last year’s annual session, provoked passionate opposition and support, competing lobbying efforts and three legal challenges.

People with disabilities who employ personal care attendants warned that unionization could undermine their control over the services they receive, and raised concerns that collective bargaining could ultimately lead to reduced services unless the total funding for the program — state spending — increases. Some daycare providers argued that they’re business owners, not employees who could be unionized. Opponents also took issue with Malloy’s use of executive orders to grant unionization rights, saying he overstepped his authority and didn’t include people affected in the decision making process.

Home care workers and other people who hire them, meanwhile, argued that unionization and bargaining rights could bring needed improvements in compensation and training, potentially bolstering a low-wage workforce that is expected to be in high demand as the population ages and the state tries to increase the availability of home-based care. Although critics took issue with the relatively low number of eligible voters who cast ballots, both groups of workers voted by wide margins to join unions — CSEA/SEIU Local 2001 for the daycare providers, and the New England Health Care Employees Union District 1199, SEIU, for the home care workers.

In a statement released shortly after the vote, Malloy said the bill will provide better wages “to people who work tirelessly for some of our state’s most vulnerable residents.”

Malloy said the legislation removes any uncertainty about the future of the unionization effort that began with his executive orders.

“I know this issue has caused anxiety for some but let’s lay to rest any concerns that residents may have.  I believe our state government has an obligation to protect our most vulnerable, young and old alike,” he said. “It’s my hope that elected representation will lead to better wages, and therefore more stability in each of the fields — a development that will help both client and care workers.”

Sen. Edith G. Prague, D-Columbia, began the debate by describing the bill as representing “a policy choice by the General Assembly that granting these workers a voice will in the long run improve their lives and the lives of the people that they serve.”

Prague, who co-chairs the committees on aging and labor, said the workers affected perform some of the toughest jobs, taking care of seniors and people with disabilities.

On that point, Sen. Jason Welch, R-Bristol, agreed. But he said he had concerns with the process that led to the bill, and with the policy behind it. He noted that people with disabilities often use the slogan “Nothing about us without us,” referring to the importance of having a voice in decisions that affect them, yet they weren’t involved in the process that produced the executive orders.

“It was a little shortsighted to not include them in those initial discussions,” Welch said.

Welch also questioned why collective bargaining would be necessary for raising the wages of people paid through the home care or daycare programs since both are funded by the state. If the issue is getting more money for the programs, he asked, why wouldn’t people just talk to legislators, so they could act?

Sen. Joe Markley, R-Southington, one of the most vocal critics of the executive orders and the bill, spoke at length against the proposal. He referenced Catherine Ludlum and Claude Holcomb, two people who hire personal care attendants and have been frequent visitors to the state Capitol to argue against the proposal.

Prague referenced them, too, and said the bill would not affect their ability to direct, hire or fire their own personal care attendants or to direct their own care.

But Markley said Ludlum and others who hire home care workers fear that whatever safeguards are included in the bill to protect their control won’t be enough; in the end, he said, their relationships with the workers they hire could end up being governed by employer-employee rules.

He also voiced the concerns opponents of the bill have raised that if collective bargaining leads to higher wages for the home care workers, it would also lead to a reduction in the services people receive. That’s because state-administered Medicaid programs that fund home care services limit how much money a person can receive to pay for personal care attendant services. Increased wages could push people who are close to the cost limit — those who receive the most services — over it.

The bill specifies that no agreement could lead to a reduction in services provided, and that the legislature would have to approve any deal that requires additional funding to maintain service levels. It also directs the commissioners of Social Services and Developmental Services to seek waivers from federal law, such as the rules governing the Medicaid home care programs, if necessary.

A workforce council that addresses personal care attendant issues, which was established by Malloy’s executive order, recommended that the language of the bill be clarified to require that any waivers be approved before the results of a bargaining agreement are implemented, to avoid the possibility that a wage increase could take effect without the ability to increase funds for people who receive the most services. The council requested that if the existing bill’s language passed the Senate, alternative language be included in subsequent legislation. The language of the bill was not changed Thursday.

Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, an expert in early childhood education, spoke about the daycare providers and the growing body of research on the importance of early brain development in children. Because the workforce is dispersed, it’s been difficult to organize the providers and work systemically to increase the quality of care provided to young children, she said.

The daycare providers in the union are those paid with state subsidies through the Care 4 Kids program, and Bye said that despite advocacy, reimbursement rates have not gone up in years or reached the level of a living wage. She described the workforce as women who are underpaid and have no leverage, but serve some of the most vulnerable children in the state.

“Let’s get people a living wage who are taking care of our youngest brains,” she said.

Once Malloy signs the bill, the two unions will be able to bargain with the state over issues including reimbursement rates, benefits, payment procedures, contract grievance arbitration and training.

Some subjects would be off-limits for bargaining, including getting state employee benefits; the rights of a parent or consumer to hire, direct or fire any childcare provider or personal care attendant; or a procedure for grievance arbitration against any parent or consumer.

The legislature would have to approve any deal that requires additional funding for service levels to be maintained.

Neither group would be permitted to strike, and they would not be considered state employees.