Wolf camp disputes assertion of home-care ‘union ballot’
April 15, 2015 12:00 AM
Marc Levy/Associated Press
Gov. Tom Wolf
By Bill Toland / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Republicans and union foes say the representation ballot being circulated to Pennsylvania’s independent home-care workers looks a lot like an organizing “ambush” on the part of labor.
But Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf says that’s not so.
“It’s not a union ballot,” said Jeff Sheridan, spokesman for Mr. Wolf. “It’s just not. They’re wrong.”
A copy of the ballot, which was circulated to reporters on Tuesday, says it is meant “to determine representation for Pennsylvania participant-directed home-care workers.”
“It’s disturbing that the Wolf administration is publicly denying that [this] has anything to do with unions, while at the same time working behind the scenes to provide SEIU and AFSCME with a list of names and addresses of home-care workers, enabling this union ambush election,” said Nathan Benefield, vice president of policy analysis for the Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative Harrisburg think tank.
But representation is not the same as unionization, and that’s an important distinction, because the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Act appears to forbid home-care “domestic” workers from organizing.
Home-care workers often bathe, feed and dress seniors and the disabled, providing companionship and limited medical care. Many work for agencies, but tens of thousands of them in Pennsylvania are essentially independent contractors, caring for friends or kin and getting paid by Medicaid to do so.
It’s those independent workers who were the subject of a Feb. 27 executive order from Mr. Wolf, which created the Advisory Group on Participant-Directed Home Care and, more controversially, set up a process by which those home-care workers could elect a representative to discuss working conditions with state leaders. Opponents of the measure sued the Wolf administration in Commonwealth Court last week.
Legal experts say there is a distinction between voting for union representation and being a union member: Being a member generally means that one would pay dues, be permitted to vote for union officials, and otherwise have a say in union business. Union representation also does not necessarily confer certified collective bargaining rights.
“It’s actually a pretty important distinction,” said Moshe Z. Marvit, a labor law expert and a fellow with The Century Foundation, a liberal New York City policy group. “And it is a distinction that has been very well developed under the law in America.”
“Beck objectors” — so-called after the 1988 Communications Workers of America v. Beck decision — can be represented by a union without being a member, for example, and they get out of paying certain dues.
Why are “domestic” workers excluded from collective bargaining in Pennsylvania? That’s an artifact of the original National Labor Relations Act, enacted in 1935 under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In order to win the votes of Southern Democrats, the act specifically carved out domestic help (often women) and farmworkers (often black).
The National Labor Relations Act was the model for similar state legislation. Pennsylvania’s Labor Relations Act, passed in 1937, says the law does not apply to “any individual employed as an agricultural laborer, or in the domestic service of any person in the home of such person, or any individual employed by his parent or spouse.”
State courts have interpreted the “domestic service” and the family employment pieces of the act to mean that home-care workers can’t unionize. But Mr. Wolf’s allies on the issue say that these home-care aides, who often make less than $10 an hour, need a seat at the table in Harrisburg.
“The opponents of this initiative need to stop filing baseless lawsuits and start working together to effectively meet the growing care needs our seniors and people with disabilities deserve so they can live independently in their communities,” said Thomas Earle, CEO of Liberty Resources, a group that promotes independent living for seniors and those with disabilities, in a statement. Liberty is supported by the United Home Care Workers of Pennsylvania, a joint venture of AFSCME and SEIU.
Steve Miskin, a spokesman for House Republicans, said that “the governor definitely exceeded his authority … We plan on filing an amicus brief with the courts.”
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