High Court Ruling On Home Health Care Workers Could Hit Home In Connecticut [Hartford Courant

July 1, 2014

Greg Hladky The Hartford Courant

HARTFORD – Connecticut’s law allowing non-union home health care workers to be charged fees to pay for union collective bargaining expenses could be in jeopardy as a result of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling released Monday.

The 5-4 decision from the high court’s conservative majority overturned a portion of an Illinois law dealing with home health care workers and collective bargaining.

Connecticut’s General Assembly passed a similar law in 2012 after a long and sometimes fierce debate over workers’ rights versus the needs of elderly and sick patients.

The ruling is widely considered a blow against organized labor. But the narrow decision does not throw out state laws allowing home health care workers to join unions or negotiate with state for better pay, benefits and working conditions.

Critics of Connecticut’s controversial legislation claim the new U.S. Supreme Court decision also invalidates at least a portion of this state’s law. But top state officials, including Gov. Dannel Malloy and Attorney General George Jepsen, say it’s unclear what impact the ruling will have in Connecticut.

State Sen. Joe Markley, R-Southington, said he believes the ruling does prevent non-union workers from having to pay union certain union fees. He said the Supreme Court decision appears to be “clear enough” that there may not need to be any court challenge here.

“But there may be a need to change the law,” said Markley, a long-time opponent of the idea of allowing home health care workers to unionize. For years, Markley has argued unionizing home care employees would create trouble for the elderly and sick patients those workers look after.

Carol Platt Liebau is president of the Yankee Institute for Public Policy, a conservative think tank based in Connecticut that has been involved in legal actions on this issue. She said the court decision is clear that “home health care workers work for their elderly or disabled patients – not the state – and private homes are not union shops.”

Liebau said the Supreme Court decision “effectively invalidates the 2012 law” and called the ruling “a victory for freedom and opportunity in Connecticut.”

Jennifer Schneider, a spokeswoman for SEIU 1199 New England, the union representing home health care workers in Connecticut, said, “It’s not immediately clear what impact, if any, this will have in Connecticut” or if it puts this state’s law at risk.

“We can understand how some people may be anxious to make that jump,” Schneider said, adding that there are no lawsuits pending in Connecticut challenging the state law.

Democratic politicians and union leaders in Connecticut called the court decision a setback for workers in this state and across the nation. “Today’s ruling takes the rights of American workers backwards,” said Malloy.

“I am deeply concerned about the impact of the decision on working families,” said Jepsen.

“Connecticut home care workers came together this year to form a union in order to have a strong voice for good jobs and quality home care,” said SEIU 1199 New England President David Pickus.

“They’ve already been able to make important gains in wages, benefits and training. No court decision is going to stop them from continuing to improve their lives and the lives for the people for whom they care.”

The idea behind allowing all home health care workers to be charged fees to cover collective bargaining expenses is that even non-union workers “reap the benefits that the union negotiates,” said state Rep. Peter Tercyak, a Democrat and co-chair of the legislature’s Labor and Public Employees Committee.

Labor leaders and their Democratic supporters argued that home health care workers should treated the same as state employees because the state pays most of their wages.

The first contract negotiated for Connecticut home health care employs, which covers about 7,000 workers, was approved by the General Assembly a few weeks ago.

Malloy, who is now running for a second term, said the law allowing such contracts helps create “a stable, qualified home care work force that makes life-changing improvements in the lives of seniors and people with disabilities who want nothing more than to live independently at home.”

One of Malloy’s harshest critics is Jonathan Pelto, a liberal former political director for the Connecticut Democratic Party who is running for governor as an independent, and he also blasted the Supreme Court decision. Pelto said the result is that some workers will enjoy the benefits negotiated by unions “to refrain from paying the dues that helped bring about those benefits.”

Markley said the court ruling could have a major impact on the viability of home health care worker unions if enough of those types of employees decide not to pay those collective bargaining fees. He said the lack of such funding could potentially make such a union impossible to sustain.