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Home health workers holding largest union vote in state history

Posted: Monday, August 12, 2002

EVERETT (AP) -- They take care of people who can't care for themselves. But many home health-care workers say the state hasn't taken good care of them.

This week, they're voting on whether to join a union, following the trend set by California and Oregon home health workers who unionized in hopes of getting better pay and benefits. The state pays Washington workers $7.68 an hour -- barely more than minimum wage -- with no benefits, so they really have nowhere to go but up.

Ballots went to nearly 26,000 home-care workers for the largest union election in state history. If they join the Service Employees International Union, they would nearly double SEIU's membership in Washington State. Their ballots will be counted Friday in Olympia.

Mike Hardy is voting yes. The 68-year-old Everett man put his retirement on hold to care for his 88-year-old mother-in-law, Ruby Ento, who has diabetes and is in the early stages of Alzheimer's.

''There's so many people out there doing this home care and not getting properly compensated,'' he said Friday, as Ento napped in front of the television in her tidy, sunny room next to the bedroom Hardy shares with his wife. ''I hope we can get some consideration and recognition.''

Ento wandered to the living room, complaining her feet were swollen. A bright-eyed woman who laughs easily, she wore a purple shirt that matched her socks and earrings. ''She likes the colors to be coordinated,'' Hardy said.

Nellie Hardy, 61, checked her mother's feet. They bathe her feet with warm water -- ''not too hot,'' Hardy said, ''you got to be awful careful with that'' -- and rub medicated cream on them three times a week. It's part of a caregiving routine that includes daily baths, changing adult diapers and catheters, insulin shots, cleaning dentures, giving eyedrops, cooking, cleaning and countless other tasks. The state pays for 46 hours of work a week, but Hardy and his wife never clock out. They often wake at 3 a.m. to calm Ento after a nightmare or rub her belly when she's constipated.

''She gets tender, loving care,'' Hardy said proudly.

They never considered a nursing home.

''Noooo,'' Hardy said in a whisper. ''That would kill her. She couldn't stay with strangers.''

He and his wife survive on their pensions and the state pay for Ento's care. Money is tight, Hardy said, and better wages and benefits, especially health benefits, would help.

Not every home-care worker believes the union is the answer, though.

Julie Giorgetti of Renton cares for her severely disabled 23-year-old daughter. She's paid by Medicaid, a joint federal and state program, at a rate she once calculated to be about 30 cents an hour. Like most home-care workers, she's not in it for the money.

''It's not a job, it's a way for me to keep my daughter at home'' she said. As a parent, ''This is just what you do.''

She said it doesn't make sense for her to join a union and pay dues -- SEIU Local 6 members pay 1.8 percent of their gross income in dues. And the union's campaign, which included phone calls and personal visits to try to persuade her to vote yes, seemed ''almost hurtful'' to her.

''Of course I want them to have respect and what they need,'' she said. ''We can join all the unions we want, but where is the money coming from?''

That's a good question. Unionization doesn't guarantee better pay, especially not with the state's budget problems. Home health-care workers now act as independent contractors -- they're hired by elderly or disabled clients, and paid by the state, with little oversight. Last year the Legislature passed a 25-cent hourly raise for them, but it was vetoed by Gov. Gary Locke when he had to cut the Legislature's unbalanced budget.

Voters passed Initiative 775 last year, allowing home health workers to unionize and creating the Home Care Quality Authority to act as the ''employer'' for purposes of negotiation.

The nine members of the board sympathize with home-care workers and will probably agree on better pay and benefits, said chairman Charley Reed, former head of Aging and Adult Services for the state.

But the Legislature must approve whatever salary and benefits is negotiated -- and that's where the real battle will begin. The state had a $1.6 billion budget hole this year and next year is expected to be worse.

''The question is, how can we afford to pay more?'' Reed said.

Friday's home-care vote is part of a trend changing the face of American labor. Health-care workers are the future for unions, experts say.

Three years ago, 74,000 home health workers in Los Angeles County voted to join SEIU, one of the largest organizing victories since the 1930 union drives in auto plants, said Dr. Paul F. Clark, professor of labor studies and industrial relations at Penn State University.

In the early 1900s, skilled craftsmen such as carpenters and plumbers dominated unions. Mid-century, industrial sectors such as auto-making, mining and steel led labor. Now the power base is shifting to government, health care and other service workers, Clark said.

''They're the 800-pound gorilla of the labor unions now,'' he said.



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