A controversial bill to give collective bargaining rights to some state-funded home care workers failed to make it through the legislature this year, but Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is considering signing an executive order that would enact a pared-down version of the proposal.

“We are reviewing potential options for an executive order that would address some of the growing concerns about training and recruitment of personal care attendants in the state,” Andrew McDonald, the governor’s legal counsel, said Tuesday.

mcdonald, miner

McDonald, Miner: An effort to improve training and recruitment, or a favor to unions?

Unlike the bill, which drew intense opposition from people with disabilities, the plan the governor is considering would not extend collective bargaining rights to personal care attendants who assist seniors and people with disabilities in state-funded programs. Instead, a draft executive order that the administration has used to solicit feedback calls for a more collaborative process known as “meet and confer.”

It also outlines a process for personal care attendants, or PCAs, to be represented by a “majority representative”–which could be a union but does not have to be–in the meet and confer process. And it would establish a “working group” to make recommendations for the future on the best ways to structure collective bargaining rights for the organization representing personal care attendants in state-funded programs.

Other provisions of the draft are similar to the bill, including the creation of a Personal Care Attendant Quality Home Care Workforce Council that would study issues relating to PCA recruitment and retention, and develop a plan to improve the quality, stability and availability of PCAs, including by developing training, establishing one or more registries of PCAs to provide referrals, and meeting and conferring with the majority representative of personal care attendants.

McDonald said some things in the bill proposed this year would require legislative action, but the administration is exploring what parts of it can be done by the executive branch on a more narrow basis.

“The governor is very concerned with developing training and educational opportunities for PCAs, but also creating registries for PCAs and making sure that there are more coherent standards for organizing PCAs in the state,” McDonald said.

Personal care attendants provide services such as helping individuals bathe, dress, eat or drive to work. The state provides funding for PCAs in several programs that serve seniors and people with disabilities.

Home and personal care assistants are among the fastest growing jobs in the state, and the demand is expected to grow as baby boomers age and the state moves toward providing more long-term care outside of institutions. The Malloy administration set a goal earlier this year of transitioning 5,200 people from nursing homes to home or community-based care by 2016. The state Department of Labor estimated the number of personal and home health aides in 2008 at 12,364–both state-funded and privately employed–and projected that the number would increase by 43.8 percent by 2018.

But the work tends to be low-wage, with no benefits. Statewide, the mean hourly wage for personal and home care aides was $10.80 last year, according to the labor department. Experts say the limited workforce is one of the most significant barriers to expanding the use of home-based long-term care.

Supporters of the bill allowing PCAs to unionize said giving them the right to negotiate for increased wages and benefits could make the field more attractive and less subject to turnover, helping to meet the coming demand. In testimony on the bill earlier this year, people who work as PCAs told of relying on food stamps, being unable to afford a car or a $319 hospital bill, working another job to get health insurance, being on the verge of losing a home, or having their wages cut when a client needed more care on the same budget. Some said they were going to school to get training for jobs that paid better.

But people with disabilities strongly opposed the bill. Some saw it as an effort by the union that represents nursing home workers, the New England Health Care Employees Union District 1199, SEIU, to preserve its membership as more people receive care outside of nursing homes. Some said they support higher hourly wages for attendants, but worried that if the overall funding for the services does not increase, higher wages would simply mean fewer hours of care, potentially making it harder to live independently.

Catherine Ludlum, a Manchester resident who employs PCAs through a state program and opposed the bill, noted that she and other people with disabilities, as well as some PCAs, worked hard to ensure that the bill did not pass the legislature.

“And now the governor’s taking it upon himself to enact this,” she said. “I’m very disappointed in Gov. Malloy for taking this tack.”

Ludlum said she agreed with the premise that PCAs do important work and the state will need more of them, but questioned how a workforce council and a union would make it better. She said some PCAs do not want to be in a union and would quit if there was one.

Because the responsibilities are unique to each client, the person hiring the PCA typically trains him or her, and some critics of the bill have said that creating a centralized structure for training and other functions could interfere with the individualized, and intimate, nature of the work.

Currently, the people who receive the services act as their PCAs’ employers, although state funds are used to pay them. The bill would have created a 13-member workforce council that would serve as the PCAs’ employer, and would have allowed the PCAs to unionize.

The draft executive order would create a seven-member workforce council, but does not make it the PCAs’ employer.

The order would not prevent any consumer from hiring, firing or supervising their own PCAs. No one would be required to hire a PCA who has been referred by the council.

The draft executive order directs the council and majority representative to discuss through the meet and confer process issues including the quality and availability of PCA services, recruitment and retention of qualified PCAs, compensation standards, state payment procedures, and training and professional development.

McDonald said the draft executive order is a work in progress, and the administration has been seeking input from stakeholders. “This is something that is being actively considered by the governor, and he may act on it in short order,” McDonald said.

Rep. Craig Miner, R-Litchfield, who voted against the bill in the Labor and Public Employees Committee, said issuing an executive order on the matter reflected what he hears constituents and others criticize as the governor’s “kingly approach” that does not take the legislative process into account.

“Wish I could say I was shocked, but I’m not,” he said.

Miner said the legislature has a history of “doing things rather methodically” and taking its time on issues, so it’s not unusual for bills not to pass in the first few years they’re introduced.

Miner also questioned whether the executive order should be seen in the context of a concession deal that unionized state employees are voting on this week.

“I would almost take the position that any executive order that moves any ball any closer to an organization goal line is a quid pro quo,” he said.

Malloy’s relationship with organized labor, which supported him in last year’s Democratic primary and general election, is at a low point. He angered some unionized state employees when he asked for $2 billion in labor concessions as part of his two-year budget proposal. Enough state employees voted against the resulting concession package that it was not ratified, and union members are scheduled to complete voting on a clarified agreement this week.

It’s not clear how much of a boost issuing the executive order now could give Malloy in getting the concession package ratified. The state employees represented by 1199 supported the concession deal by a wide margin in the first round of voting.

McDonald said he’s not aware of any link between the possible executive order and the union vote. “The governor was actively discussing this policy initiative when he was still running for office,” McDonald said. “So his commitment to this issue long predates his assumption of his position.”

Arielle Levin Becker covered health care for The Connecticut Mirror. She previously worked for The Hartford Courant, most recently as its health reporter, and has also covered small towns, courts and education in Connecticut and New Jersey. She was a finalist in 2009 for the prestigious Livingston Award for Young Journalists, a recipient of a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship and the third-place winner in 2013 for an in-depth piece on caregivers from the National Association of Health Journalists. She is a 2004 graduate of Yale University.

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