Over the past few years, a number of states have rolled back secure, reliable public sector jobs. Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin has successfully limited the collective bargaining rights of public employees, particularly teachers, nurses, child care providers, and other female-dominated professions. Other states proposed similar legislation. Tennessee had legislation to restrict teacher collective bargaining. In Ohio, a similar law was repealed in 2011. And in Michigan, Gov. Rick Snyder stripped collective bargaining rights of home-based child care workers in 2011.
Despite this national climate, home care workers who are paid with state funds and aid underserved populations have over the last two decades secured collective bargaining rights in several states. California, Oregon, Washington, Illinois, Massachusetts, and Missouri have all codified collective bargaining rights for their publicly paid home care workers. And Vermont may be the next to join this group. The state’s collective bargaining legislation passed the Vermont House of Representatives on May 2 and already passed the Vermont Senate in March. Gov. Peter Shumlin (D-VT) is expected to sign the legislation soon.
Many of these workers are paid less than $10 per hour as independent contractors, and their hours and wages are determined by the state. The vast majority—more than 90 percent—of all home care workers are women. One-third are African American, one-fifth are Hispanic, and one-fifth are immigrants. Twenty-five percent of home care workers are unmarried women with young children. An estimated 600,000 earn wages below the poverty line, according to the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
Two labor unions, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the SEIU, have been working to organize home care workers—not an easy task, given how isolated home care workers tend to be. As Karen Connor, communications director at AFSCME Vermont, told RH Reality Check, “We make efforts to get workers together including through our website and we have local organizing meetings that help workers connect. But mostly, it’s door to door outreach. We’ve gone to thousands of doors. There’s no shop floor here. And home care workers don’t necessarily have a cell phone or email.”
Janelle Blake has been a home care worker for ten years. She supports the Vermont collective bargaining legislation. “I don’t even know my colleagues. We are all spread out in state of Vermont. And that’s why it’s so great to form a union. When we come together we can get more done.”
As part of Vermont’s Medicaid-funded home care program, Blake earns $9.78 per hour. She works a total of 68 hours per week—full time for a single, disabled woman, and part-time for a disabled young boy. Blake started her career as a home care provider for a man with Alzheimer’s disease, and she then worked as a special education teacher. Along with her husband, a convenience store manager, Blake has raised three adult children all the while working in the care sector.
“I almost came to the point of losing our condo because things were getting so expensive,” she said. “It got really scary, that’s why I’m working so hard. We’ve worked very hard for everything we have, we started on food stamps and came up from there.”
Collective bargaining statutes like Vermont’s establish an employment relationship between these home care workers and the state for the limited purpose of collective bargaining. They empower workers to come together and decide what they’d like the terms of their employment to be and then negotiate those terms with the state.
However, these collective bargaining statutes still do not mirror the rights established by the National Labor Relations Act; for example, they do not protect home care workers who may choose to strike. “All the state home care worker collective bargaining laws prohibit striking,” Matt Mayers, AFSCME’s Vermont legislative director, told RH Reality Check. “But this is to protect the ability of service recipients to obtain their vital services.”
Legislation like this has been shown to improve economic conditions of home care workers while also establishing continuity of care for elders, ill and disabled people, and others who are served by these home care workers. In California, for example, economist Candace Howes evaluated the economic impact of increasing these workers’ wages in San Francisco County, finding that increasing wages for home care workers reduced San Francisco’s overall poverty rate by 16 percent. She also found that in-home support services jobs represented 8 percent of all low-wage jobs, 16 percent of low-wage jobs available to women, and a quarter of all low-wage jobs available to immigrant women without English language proficiency in San Francisco County. As wages increased, the retention rate of all home care workers in San Francisco rose by 9 percent, and the retention rate for new home care workers rose by 89 percent.
The legislation may help save the state money over the long term, as recipients of care in Vermont can elect to live at home and receive home care support instead of the more costly option of living in a full-time care facility.
While public-sector jobs may continue to be attacked politically, Vermont’s statute shows that union prowess can improve conditions for workers who aid the underserved and are struggling financially themselves.