Dan Walters

Dan Walters: As home care program shifts, adversarial relationship evolves

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

Fifteen years ago, without even a pro forma hearing, the Legislature and then-Gov. Gray Davis decreed an immense expansion of union membership by transforming hundreds of thousands of home care aides into public employees.

The decree, in legislation designed as a budget “trailer bill,” initially made the In-Home Supportive Services caregivers employees of newly created county agencies, even though state and federal governments picked up most of the cost.

Two years ago, however, the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown began to merge IHSS with other social services and shift the negotiation of union contracts for aides – who are selected by care recipients and usually family members – to a new statewide “authority.”

As that county-by-county shift occurs, IHSS will become, in effect, a state program with nearly 400,000 employees. While IHSS unions like the shift to state bargaining, it’s creating a new and semi-adversarial relationship between them and the state.

The just-concluded legislative session provided some clues to that evolving relationship.

When, for example, President Barack Obama’s administration declared that IHSS workers were entitled to overtime pay, Brown attempted to limit them to 40-hour weeks to limit costs, but eventually settled for a lesser restriction.

When the Legislature was passing a so-called “domestic worker bill of rights,” laying out working conditions for housekeepers, babysitters and other home helpers, it exempted IHSS workers from its protections – a kind of do-as-we-say-not-as-we-do attitude.

But it wasn’t the only such example. Brown balked at a controversial bill requiring employers to provide paid sick leave to workers until its author, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, agreed to exempt IHSS workers.

IHSS unions bridled at the exemption, which put their allies in the Legislature on the spot, but another late-session bill applied a little salve to the unions’ political wound.

The bill, ostensibly a budget cleanup measure, contains a curious provision giving union representatives the right – at public expense – to talk to new workers about union membership for “up to 30 minutes.”

Why?

Well, it may have had something to do with a U.S. Supreme Court decision in an Illinois case that IHSS workers cannot be compelled to pay union “agency shop” dues because they are not truly public workers, since they are chosen by their clients.

IHSS workers are paid, in most cases, only slightly more than minimum wages, so union dues can be a major bite and many might opt out of paying them under the Supreme Court’s decree.

The 30-minute meeting provided in the new legislation, now on Brown’s desk, would seem to be aimed at counteracting the decision’s effects on the unions’ revenue streams.

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