Politics & Government

U.S. Supreme Court decision on Illinois home care workers may affect 43,000 care workers here

A Supreme Court ruling Monday on Illinois home care workers’ rights fell short of ushering in right-to-work rules that would let public employees not only refuse to join a union but also not pay representation fees or dues. But the case raises questions about whether 43,000 Washington home care workers, who are not state employees, have that right, and state lawyers are evaluating what fallout there is.

“We are aware of the Harris v. Quinn decision and are reviewing it. We need time to review it fully and consult with our client agencies to determine what, if any, implications there are for Washington state,” said Janelle Guthrie, spokeswoman for the Washington Attorney General’s Office. The client agencies include Gov. Jay Inslee’s office and the Department of Social and Health Services.

Lawyers for Service Employees International Union 775 also were studying the ruling in Harris v. Quinn. Washington home care workers are not state employees, but 43,000 that cater to Medicaid clients won the right to collectively bargain for pay and benefits in 2001 when 62.7 percent of Washington voters approved Initiative 775.

Critics of collective bargaining rights such as The Freedom Foundation, a libertarian-oriented think tank in Olympia, said in a news release the decision is a blow to unions even though it didn’t provide a sweeping victory that opponents of collective bargaining had hoped for.

The court’s 5-to-4 opinion found that “home healthcare workers in Illinois should not be considered full-fledged state employees and thus cannot be compelled to either join a union or pay representation fees to one. The decision does not, however, allow all public employees to disassociate themselves from unions, as many had hoped. Rather, the court creates a category called ‘partial public employees’ who cannot be required to pay union bargaining fees,” TFF said.

Such employees would be similar to home care workers represented by Service Employees International Union 775 in Washington, as well as SEIU 925 members who work in child care centers that contract with the state to provide subsidized care, TFF said. “Presumably the court’s action on Monday means those employees could now be permitted to opt out of union participation altogether – a scenario that could devastate the union if employees here react as they have in other states by opting out in droves,” TFF labor expert Maxford Nelsen said in the release.

SEIU 775 spokesman Jackson Holtz disputed that is the sure effect, noting union lawyers are continuing to examine the ruling. “I think it’s important to emphasize that Washington’s home care program is very, very different than the Illinois Medicaid personal assistance program. ... The difference is we have a far more robust collective bargaining model, and we have been able to make significant gains for workers with our model,’’ Holtz said.

Holtz also said few of the union’s 43,000 members protest dues and opt instead to pay shop fees, which are less than dues and reflect the cost of collective bargaining that they benefit from. He noted that SEIU 775 has has won wage gains, health coverage, vacations, training and mileage reimbursements in the decade since voters approved Initiative 775.

TFF fought against dues requirements for Washington Education Association members a decade ago in a case known as Davenport v WEA. Nelsen noted that ruling was cited in the Supreme Court’s ruling this week and he called the Harris case a victory for workers’ First Amendment rights.

The Washington Policy Center’s Jason Mercier suggested there could be impacts for home care workers, child-care workers covered by SEIU 925’s collective bargaining agreements for state-subsidized child care, and for language interpreters that function as independent contractors for the Department of Social and Health Services. The Washington Federation of State Employees represents interpreters.

“The reason why these three groups may be impacted by today's SCOTUS ruling is because state law calls them public employees ‘solely for the purposes of collective bargaining,’ ” Mercier wrote. “This distinction most likely triggers the Court's test of them being "quasi-public employees" and thus they are not subject to the 1977 Abood decision, which allows public sector unions to collect mandatory agency fees from workers as a condition of employment. If the Court says home care workers in Illinois can’t be forced to give money to a union, then home care workers in Washington can’t either.”

UPDATES: Tom McCabe, chief executive for The Freedom Foundation, released a statement to supporters late Monday that suggested it may need legal action to enforce the decision on behalf of workers that don’t want to pay dues or belong to unions.

In his message, McCabe says: “The Freedom Foundation's legal team, which now includes former state Supreme Court Justice Jim Johnson, is analyzing how to force SEIU and the Governor in our state to comply with today's ruling. It will likely take litigation.” He adds: “If SEIU does not comply with the law of the land, you have my word that the Freedom Foundation will do whatever it takes to protect workers from forced unionization.”

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688