CT legislative panel OKs contract with personal care attendants

Rep. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly

The CT Mirror

Rep. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly

A legislative committee approved a controversial first contract Tuesday between the state and the union representing nearly 11,000 personal care attendants who help the elderly and disabled remain in their homes.

The workers, who originally gained bargaining rights through an executive order by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, receive hourly raises ranging from 40 to 50 cents in 2014, and from 35 to 50 cents in 2015.

The agreement provides funds for worker training and orientation and limited paid time off. Though rules governing the latter still must be negotiated, workers could be eligible for limited stipends – but not full pay – when taking scheduled time off.

Unless the full legislature votes to reject the agreement before the regular 2014 session adjourns May 7, the deal automatically would be ratified.

Supporters hailed the deal, saying it’s needed to boost the pay and working conditions of home care attendants at a time when demand is expected to skyrocket as more people receive long-term care outside nursing homes.

“I think this is a huge step forward for our state,” said Rep. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly.

Rep. Betsy Ritter, D-Waterford, added that turnover in the personal care attendant field harms patients, who form close bonds with their care providers. “What I’m hearing from consumers is frustration,” she said. “They want to have these connections.”

But critics worry that unionization will increase costs and impede clients’ ability to make their own decisions about who works for them.

The new agreement governs personal care attendants working for private agencies hired by either the Department of Social Services or the Department on Developmental Disabilities.

Nonpartisan legislative analysts estimate the contract would cost the state $1.3 million this fiscal year, $3.3 million in the budget that begins July 1, and $4.2 million in 2015-16.

Personal care attendants, or PCAs, work for seniors and people with disabilities, performing tasks such as helping them dress, bathe, eat or drive to work. The PCAs covered by the union work for people who hire and pay them using money from state programs.

The unionization of personal care attendants has been highly controversial.

Malloy granted PCAs limited negotiating rights through a 2011 executive order, and legislators granted them collective bargaining rights in statute the following year. Both moves faced intense opposition from many people with disabilities.

One of the chief concerns of people who hire PCAs is that higher wages could force them to cut back the number of hours of service they receive, potentially making it harder for them to live outside a nursing home. Because the programs that fund PCA services cap the total amount of money each client can spend on the services, clients say raises in workers’ hourly wages would mean that people might not be able to afford all the hours of services they need, particularly those who require the most assistance.

Walter Glomb of Vernon, the parent of an adult child with Down syndrome, testified Tuesday that he fears the state cannot afford this agreement, particularly given the large backlog of Connecticut households still waiting for the state to place their developmentally disabled family members in residential care.

“Where are the funds for this new labor agreement?” Glomb asked.

Carl Noll of Fairfield, who has two developmentally disabled sons, said he fears the disabled ultimately will be forced to sacrifice to accommodate this new contract.

“In light of the cutbacks which have been applied to DDS budgets,” Noll said, “it seems unreasonable to expect that pay increases can be provided without a decrease in the time/service provided.”

Rep. Robert Sampson, R-Wolcott, who voted for the contract, warned that he also feels it ultimately will drain resources from patient care. “The program is not for the PCAs,” he said. “It is for the people in the community who hire them.”

David Pickus, president of New England Health Care Employees Union, District 1199, — the parent union for the new bargaining unit – said the contract prohibits the state from reducing home care service funding to finance wage increases.

Chantel Mendez, 28, of Bridgeport, a personal care attendant for the last six years, said she has taken part-time work in the past – in addition to her PCA duties – to make ends meet.

The conditions spelled out in this new contract, she added, are reasonable for a field where providers already are heavily burdened and modestly compensated.

“The things we want, everyone wants: better wages, paid time off, sick time,” she said. “We can’t get them on our own.”

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