Freelance home-care workers win right to unionize

Independent workers who help mentally disabled adults live at home may unionize under an executive order signed by Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn.

The order may help existing freelance home-care workers — and new ones who could be laid off in a state budget crunch — negotiate higher wages. It could also set the stage for a battle over new members among competing unions.

It would cover workers employed under the Illinois Home-Based Support Services Law for the Mentally Disabled, which helps state residents pay for care.

Some workers in the program provide their services on a freelance basis and market themselves through word of mouth, Internet listings and staffing agencies. They are employed by mentally disabled adults, their family members, or their guardians, rather than home-care agencies.

Katie Ridgway, spokeswoman for the governor, says the order follows a move  by former Gov. Rod Blagojevich giving similar bargaining rights to independent workers who help some elderly and others unable to live on their own.

Until now, freelance home-care workers who specifically help mentally disabled adults could not elect a representative to negotiate with state officials over wages and other working conditions.

"This is a group that was left out," Ridgway says. "This is filling that gap."

Quinn, a Democrat, issued the order quietly last week as he negotiated with Illinois Republicans to end a state budget crisis. He has threatened to veto a budget that would severely affect health-care agencies across the state, many of them in Chicago.

If such a budget passes, however, many home-care workers employed by agencies could find themselves out of steady work. Quinn's order allows them to join forces with others in a similar situation to demand higher wages.

Under the order, the workers remain employees of the cared-for adults, their families or their guardians, who set many of their working conditions in their employment contracts. But since the state sets minimum wages, the workers could pick a union representative who would help them negotiate with officials for higher pay.

Which union would represent them remains a question.

Two contenders would be the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Service Employees International Union, and a dispute between those unions is unlikely to go gently.

Last week, AFSCME President Gerald W. McEntee used an expletive to describe what he called SEIU's attempts to raid other unions' memberships.

McEntee spoke at the constitutional convention of Unite Here, the combined union of groups formerly known as the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union. Unite Here has also been at odds with SEIU leadership.

SEIU representatives have denied that they are trying to steal members from other unions.

Staff Writer Adrian G. Uribarri can be reached at 773.362.5002, ext. 12, or adrian at chitowndailynews dot org.