Sadie Hawkins — yes, she laughed ruefully, that's her real name — put some lotion on her hands one recent morning and rubbed Patty Swanson's feet, which she often does after Swanson showers.

That's one of the many things Hawkins does for Swanson, who has a painful degenerative disc disease that severely limits her mobility and confines her mostly to home.

Hawkins works in one of the fastest-growing and lowest-paid job categories in both Minnesota and the nation: Personal care attendants, who help the aged and disabled remain in their homes and out of expensive and impersonal institutions.

And, as of July 1, Hawkins is one of 27,000 workers who will be covered by a first-ever contract negotiated between the Service Employees International Union and the state of Minnesota. The contract will guarantee a wage floor of $10.75 per hour, paid time off, a new grievance process and a training program.

But personal care attendants, known as PCAs, are not state employees, and therein lies a controversy that has raged for years in both the political sphere and the courts. State programs funnel money to families and often to for-profit care companies, some of whom remain resistant to the union and its continued organizing campaign.

The law allowing PCAs to unionize was passed in the final hours of the 2013 legislative session, after which the SEIU obtained 10,000 worker signatures for an election. A majority of workers voted to form a collective bargaining unit last summer.

Opponents are fighting in federal appeals court in a suit supported by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, a heavyweight in the conservative legal world; oral arguments are expected this fall.

Scott Price, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, has a 23-year-old daughter with cerebral palsy who needs 24-hour supervision and help with everything from eating to bathroom care and bathing. He said he was paying overnight workers less — $9 to $10 per hour — because his daughter was sleeping during that time. With the contractual raise for those workers and money that must be set aside for paid time off, Price said he will be forced to cut hours, which means his family will have to pick up the slack.

"The burden falls back on the family in terms of caring for a child with a disability," Price said.

The union will be what's called an "open shop," meaning the SEIU will bargain on behalf of all the workers, but they won't have to join or pay dues.

Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, said he's dubious, arguing that the training program, for instance, will divert resources from the disabled, who need it, to the union.

Republicans and their business backers see a union power grab intended to help the DFL and vice versa.

But union backers say they are out to help a beleaguered class of workers, many of them single mothers.

Better pay will lead to lower turnover and higher quality care, they say.

LaTanya Hughes, who works as a PCA but who also hires people to help with her own disabled 13-year-old daughter and is active in the union, said she has switched jobs perhaps 10 times in a decade to get from $8.50 per hour to her current $11. She says she often was sent to clients without proper training for tasks like clearing a person's bowel or draining a tube in a client's throat.

Union advocates say that in addition to getting needed training, workers also will benefit from a grievance process to recover money in cases in which companies go bust and stop paying salaries, as happened in a high-profile situation last year involving Crystal Care, one of the largest home health care companies in Minnesota. Hughes said she is owed $4,000 from Crystal Care.

Hawkins said she is owed more than $1,000 by a previous employer, but fought to keep Swanson as a client when she switched companies. She helps Swanson with cooking, cleaning, doctor appointments and errands.

Swanson, 57, said she's relieved to have Hawkins at her side now. At one point, she had 10 PCAs in just two years, she estimated. When her pain acts up, she suffers from depression, so staying independent and at home, where she has her own things and her fluffy cat and a place for her two granddaughters to visit, is important to her well-being, she said.

"It's really important to have people who are willing to take care of other people," Swanson said.

As the population of Minnesota and the nation ages, that will only become more true in the coming years, which is why union advocates and their opponents continue to fight on.

According to the Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute, Minnesota will likely see an increase of 45 percent in PCAs between 2012 and 2022.

Patrick Coolican • 651-925-5042