Legislature will consider expanding union rights to home health care workers

DFL lawmakers last month introduced a bill that would grant home health care workers the right to form a union, a move advocates say will help the state address a looming workforce crisis in Minnesota’s public home care programs.

Authored by Sen. Chris Eaton and Rep. Michael Nelson, the bill targets workers in so-called “self-directed” home care programs, who are employed directly by their clients. State law currently distinguishes between workers employed by home health care agencies, many of which are unionized already, and workers providing “self-directed” care, considered more like independent contractors and, as a result, denied organizing rights.

The bill would allow home care workers to decide if they want to form a union and negotiate with the state for better wages and working conditions.

Lawmakers said changing the law to allow home-care workers to form a union gives caretakers a seat at the table  as the state plots its course for meeting the needs of a rapidly aging population.

“We are facing a massive shortage of workers to care for seniors and people with disabilities,” Nelson said. “As the Baby Boomers age, there is going to be a strain on our state’s long-term care system. We must ensure there are enough workers to help people retire with dignity.”

Eaton called it a matter of respecting the work home health care workers do.

“Minnesota relies on the thousands of dedicated home care workers who do extremely important work,” Eaton said. “When I worked as a public health nurse, I would do home assessments to decide how much care the state would provide for a senior or person living with a disability. The truth is, the work home care workers do is real and valuable.”

The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development projects demand for new home care workers in Minnesota will increase by 50,000 over the next 10 years. However, the core labor pool from which the state’s workers are traditionally drawn – women aged 25-54 – is expected to decline by nearly 2,000 workers.

Forming a union will make the profession more sustainable – and attractive – for workers, Eaton added.

“Increasing wages and benefits will stabilize this workforce, which will allow seniors to age at home rather than in nursing homes or other, more expensive institutions,” Eaton said. “It will also improve the quality of care by reducing worker turnover, which is as high as 50 percent in a single year.”

Many home health care workers already have signed up to join SEIU Healthcare Minnesota, and they remained hopeful the legislation would reach Gov. Mark Dayton’s desk.

“I’ve been caring for my mother for three years,” said Johnese Abney, a home health care worker from Duluth. “My wages and hours have been cut. With my first check of the month, I pay rent. My second check goes towards utilities and other necessities. That leaves me nothing. My mother is 93 years old and needs my care.

“It’s not about the money, but I can barely make it right now. As home care workers, we need a voice to protect us from further cuts and to make this job into a profession that people can live on.”

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