Home-care attendants puzzled by personal contact from union

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A major push to unionize home-care attendants for the elderly and disabled has the Semo Alliance for Disability Independence fielding calls from workers it oversees about how the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees got their names.

In some instances, attendants have reported that union organizers told them that they worked for the alliance, better known as SADI, managers at the alliance said. But one of the union's top leaders in Missouri said field organizers have been instructed to tell attendants they acquired their names from SADI and that those instructions may be causing confusion.

On Nov. 4, Missouri voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition B, a measure to create a statewide council to oversee the home-care attendant system. The measure included a clause allowing a statewide union election among attendants if 10 percent of those performing home-care work signed cards asking for the vote.

Home-care attendants are not nurses or nurses aides. They perform tasks such as helping a client bathe, keep their home clean, prepare meals or get to medical appointments.

Under Missouri's Medicaid system, patients eligible for an attendant can choose a friend or family member to perform the work or they may seek a referral from an agency such as SADI.

The workers are not employees of SADI, but the alliance acts as a financial intermediary with the Medicaid program, reporting attendants' hours to the state and processing payments to the workers. SADI has about 700 attendants on its rolls.

After the election, the union, known as AFSCME, sent a Sunshine Law request to SADI for the names and contact information of the home-care attendants, said Joyce Dooley, director of accounting at SADI. Last week, attendants began calling, asking about the union organizers and complaining that the organizers were linking their effort with SADI, either claiming to work for SADI or to be acting with the alliance's blessing, Dooley said.

"I don't have any difficulty if they want to organize a union, but don't put us in the middle of it," Dooley said.

The attendants reporting the contacts may be confused about what the union organizers meant when they mentioned SADI, said Jeff Mazur, administrator of AFSCME Council 72. The organizers are told to clearly identify themselves as from the union, and that they received the names of the attendants from SADI, he said.

"Our organizers are out there visiting home-care attendants in Southeast Missouri and all over the state, and they are telling them they are from AFSCME," Mazur said.

AFSCME is competing with the Service Employees International Union to organize the workers. The SEIU provided the vast majority of the $1.7 million raised to put Proposition B on the ballot and conduct the election campaign.

SADI provided the Southeast Missourian a list of attendants willing to talk about their encounters with the union organizers. Shelley Pruett of East Prairie, Mo., who works about 19 hours a week taking care of a relative, said the organizer who approached her said he was representing the home-care workers for SADI. "He said he got permission to talk to us from SADI," Pruett said.

The organizer "led me to believe he had actually been in SADI's office and gotten permission," she said. "He lied to me, the way he got it."

And Robin Wren, an attendant in Cape Girardeau, said the organizer who came to her home identified himself as a representative of AFSCME and said the union was working with SADI.

"He said he was there to help SADI organize for us to get unemployment or workmen's comp," Wren said. "He said a lot of employees have lost their jobs and can't get unemployment. He said SADI should offer us mileage for taking clients around to their doctor and we should get 401(k), health insurance and everything."

The promises didn't sound right, said Wren, who cares for three clients. She works full time as an attendant. She said that if she loses her job, she expects to receive unemployment, for example.

"They were very polite and respectable, it was just fishy," she said.

SADI had no say in whether the union did or did not talk to the workers, said Donna Thompson, director of personal care services for the alliance. By law, it had to turn over the list of attendants. SADI also does not set hours, pay rates or benefit levels for the home-care attendants, she said.

"There needs to be something done to stop these tactics," Thompson said. "Don't strong-arm your way into people's houses."

There are no strong-arm tactics being used, Mazur said. For example, he said, one of the pieces of literature being given to attendants contacted by organizers explains how to get Medicaid reimbursement for driving their charges to a medical appointment. By following the directions, the workers can receive 27 cents a mile for the use of their personal vehicles in addition to their pay, which is about $8 an hour.

"That is a program that exists now that many of these providers are simply unaware of," Mazur said.

The bottom line for the union, Mazur said, is that it is trying to help the workers gain better pay and benefits and by organizing, they can protect the program -- designed to save money by keeping people out of nursing homes -- from budget cuts.

"Folks who work as home-care attendants have very little in the way of a benefit structure that supports them and one of our priorities is working to represent these workers so that their rights and benefits are expanded," Mazur said.

rkeller@semissourian.com

388-3642

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