Unionization of personal care attendants moves ahead

  • Article by: JIM RAGSDALE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 20, 2013 - 10:02 PM

Election could be largest in state union history, organizers say.

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In December 2012 at the Dunning Recreation Center in St. Paul, personal care attendants and their supporters want PCAs to organize through the SEIU, the service employees' union.

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

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The “other” group of care workers considering unionization in Minnesota, personal care attendants who provide in-home services for elderly and disabled Minnesotans, said Friday they will begin steps this fall toward what they believe will be the largest union election in Minnesota history.

Officials of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) said that legal roadblocks affecting child-care unionization will not slow their effort to organize thousands of personal care attendants, known as PCAs.

“We expect to start the formal process of collecting cards later this fall,” Jamie Gulley, president SEIU Healthcare Minnesota, told a rally at an SEIU convention in Minneapolis. “We’ve been talking to home-care workers all summer long and are continuing to do that. This is the highest priority for our union.”

The bill that authorized a union election for in-home child care workers also authorized an election for PCAs who are hired directly by their clients, including their own children and parents. Opposition and legal challenges to the law have focused on the child-care unionization element; on Thursday, an appeals court granted an injunction that temporarily blocked the law as it applies to child-care unionization.

Gulley said he believes the injunction will not affect efforts to organize PCAs.

The union drive focuses not on attendants who work for agencies, but those hired directly by their clients — known as “consumer-directed” home care workers. Estimates of the numbers of PCAs who could vote in the union election range from 12,000 to 15,000 and could be higher, Gulley said. The exact number will not be known until the union begins the election process and receives an official list from the state, he said.

The union is needed to raise attendants’ pay, which averages under $10, said Gulley. If the union is formed, SEIU will negotiate directly with the state, which pays PCAs’ wages through the Medicaid program, he said. Contracts would have to be approved by the Legislature.

“This is a workforce that’s in crisis,” said Karen Urman, of Mounds View, who said she makes $11 per hour caring for her disabled son, but worries about who will perform this task for her son and others in the future. “There will be a shortage of workers providing this care as our population ages,” she said. “We need to provide livable wages, we need to have benefits, all the things that keep workers happy and doing a good job …”

Several attendants who supported the union, as well as their clients, said the work saves the state the far greater costs of caring for a disabled or elderly person in an institution. They said low wages paid to PCAs makes it hard to keep good workers on the job. “I believe if we improve their working conditions, that improves my living conditions,” said Ziggy Norberg, Urman’s son, who was born with spina bifida.

Gulley said seven states have PCA unions with contracts negotiated with the state, as Minnesota is attempting to do. Unlike in the child care effort, where payments are negotiated between providers and parents, PCA payments are determined by the government. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which is organizing child-care workers, is focusing more on improving training and raising subsidy payments for parents than on putting more money into providers’ pockets.

Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042

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