Unions seek organizing rights for Minnesota’s home health care workers

Ziggy Norberg talks about the importance of quality home care, as his mother and personal care attendant, Karen Urman, looks on.

Ziggy Norberg talks about the importance of quality home care, as his mother and personal care attendant, Karen Urman, looks on.

Karen Urman of Mounds View works as a personal care attendant for her adult son, Ziggy Norberg, who has used a wheelchair since he was 3 years old. The work is a full-time job, one Urman gave up her career as a tax preparer and office supervisor to pursue.

For Urman it is rewarding work, even if it doesn’t always draw the attention – or respect – it deserves. “Being a PCA is rarely considered a real job, especially when you’re a PCA for a family member,” she said.

State legislators can count on hearing from home health care workers like Urman during the 2013 legislative session, as they push for changes to a state law that prohibits them from organizing a union – a step many believe is critical to making their voices are heard as the state plots its course for meeting the needs of a rapidly aging population.

The number of Minnesota adults over 65 is expected to nearly double by 2030, according to the Wilder Foundation.

What’s more, workers believe a union would help legitimize the home health care profession and ensure workers are treated with the respect they deserve. Urman pointed to nurses and teachers as “respected career” paths that afford their professionals the right to unionize.

“My job is not necessarily more important than them, but it’s definitely not less important,” she said. “Why shouldn’t I have the right to form a union too?”

Unions push changes to law

The answer stems from a distinction made in state law between workers employed by home health care agencies, many of whom are unionized already, and workers like Urman, who are providing so-called “self-directed” care. Considered more like independent contractors by the state, workers in self-directed programs are denied organizing rights.

That’s a law two of the state’s largest unions will push lawmakers to change when the Legislature convenes next month.

SEIU Healthcare Minnesota launched its drive to organize home health care workers with a media event yesterday in St. Paul, where PCAs like Urman, joined by their clients and family members, talked about the challenges they face, including low wages, minimal benefits and limited training opportunities.

Sumer Spika of St. Paul, who provides in-home care for her friend’s daughter, said her take-home pay has fallen over the last four years to the point where she can no longer afford to take days off work.

“I have sacrificed financial stability, I live paycheck to paycheck, I have sacrificed health insurance for my family at times, and I do so because I love what I do,” Spika said at the SEIU event. “I believe as a society and a community … we should not only value the ones that we care for, but also the ones that care for them.”

Council 5 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees has an active campaign to organize workers in self-directed home health care programs, according to Organizing Director Eric Lehto.

AFSCME has represented agency-employed home health care workers in Minnesota for more than 30 years, including 175 workers at Brooklyn Park-based Transition Health Care who won their first contract earlier this year.

“We have been advocating for workers in this industry for decades,” Lehto said. “We believe in collective bargaining rights for all workers, so we’ve been talking to and signing up (self-directed program) workers as well.”

Better Legislature provides hope

The drive to organize self-directed home health care workers parallels recent efforts to win union representation for child-care providers receiving direct subsidies from the state.

Last year, after Council 5 and SEIU Local 284 signed up thousands of child-care providers, Gov. Mark Dayton called for providers to vote in a union election, but a judge ruled Dayton lacked the authority to call an election without legislative approval.

Such approval may be easier to find next year, when labor-endorsed majorities take over both chambers of the Legislature. If they are successful in changing the law, it could pave the way for a union vote among the thousands of home health care workers statewide.

Ziggy Norberg, Urman’s son and client, said a vote to join SEIU Healthcare Minnesota is one he hopes his mother gets to take – for her sake and for his own.

“She has given up a lot in order to take care of me,” Norberg said of his mother. “The fact that she does this work for me, on top of caring for my brother and sister as a single parent, all without the benefits and wages of a real career is ridiculous.

“I dread having to get a stranger to come take care of my needs, (but) if the day comes that I do need to find someone else to be my PCA, I should be able to find someone who takes the job seriously like my mom does.”

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