By Len Lazarick
As governors and legislatures in the Midwest battle over rolling back collective bargaining rights for government workers, Maryland lawmakers are on the verge of establishing more union rights for private home health aides paid by the state.
UPDATE: The Senate gave final approval to the bill Friday afternoon in a 31 to 16 vote with several Democrats joining the dozen Republicans opposing the bill. (Underlined content was added Friday afternoon.)
Gov. Martin O’Malley already granted collective bargaining to these workers with a 2007 executive order, and this year his administration is seeking to make that permanent law. In 2008, a unit of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees became the exclusive representatives of these 4,600 workers who are paid $159 million, mostly through the Medicaid program. Most of them make $10 to $13 per hour taking care of people with low income and minimal assets.
The key problem Republicans have with the legislation is that it allows the union to negotiate with the administration to establish a service fee that the home health aides would have to pay the union for negotiating their pay and benefits, even if they chose not to join. Only about a third of the workers have joined the union so far.
“You either have got to join a union or pay a service fee,” said Senate Republican Whip E.J. Pipkin in Thursday’s debate. Pipkin led the GOP opposition on Friday as well.
“I disagree that anyone is going to be coerced,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Thomas Mac Middleton, floor leader for the bill. Any service fee would be part of a memorandum of understanding that would be voted on by all the workers in the bargaining unit, even if they aren’t union members. The union currently has a contract that does not include a service fee.
According to a legislative staff analysis, “If union membership dues were set at a level similar to that of state employees, which typically range from $9 to $15 per biweekly pay period, then the cost of membership, in some cases, would be a large proportion of a provider’s reimbursement.”
Even abashedly pro-union Democrats had objections to the bill. Sen. Verna Jones-Rodwell of Baltimore, touting her family’s union credentials, was concerned that the independent companies who employ home health aides and sell their services to the state were not covered by the service fee. Jones-Rodwell recommended the bill be studied further.
Sen. Delores Kelley, D-Baltimore County, said that there was a real irony in allowing workers to organize for better pay and benefits, even though “the state could pay better rates, but we’re broke.”
“We really are indicting ourselves as a state,” Kelley said. “We ultimately determine what the rates are by what is in the budget.”
The most telling objection raised by Sen. Joseph Getty, R-Carroll, was that the union service fee would even cover workers who were being paid as independent contractors to take care of members of their own family. Getty’s amendment to exempt family members from the service fee passed 26-19, with 15 Democrats voting for the Republicans’ amendment.
Republican senators worried that the principle being established in the law would apply to other private workers receiving state reimbursement, such as highway contractors. “We can require a service fee for anyone who receives a state paycheck,” said Sen. Christopher Shank, R-Washington.
Ultimately, the Senate rejected the other Republican attempts to change the bill.
“It’s about time that home health care workers have a voice at the table,” Middleton said.