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Criticism of plan to unionize home health care workers rises

Hartford - The effort to unionize an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 home health care workers across the state who assist the Medicaid-eligible disabled is facing increasing opposition as it nears its goal.

"All of my assistants have said to me over and over again that they don't want to be in a union," said Catherine Ludlum, 49, of Manchester, who has spinal muscular atrophy and is without the use of her legs and all but three fingers.

Ludlum joined four Republican lawmakers Friday in stepping up criticism of an unfolding unionization process initiated by a Gov. Dannel P. Malloy executive order last fall.

Malloy's directive concerned a class of health care workers known as "personal care assistants" who are paid through a Medicaid waiver program administered by the state Department of Social Services. The program serves disabled individuals who could not afford this help on their own.

Malloy's order also opened the door for the workers to vote on whether they want to form a union. But it stopped short of extending the collective bargaining rights necessary for a union to negotiate wages and benefits with the state.

The opponents on Friday focused on the anticipated Jan. 17 release to the Service Employees International Union of contact information for everyone who has worked as a personal care assistant in Connecticut in the past six months.

SEIU needs the list so it can send mail-in ballots to the workers. Every care attendant in the waiver program automatically would belong to a union if the majority of the returned ballots favor unionization. But they would not yet have to pay dues.

"It's breaking my heart to know the contact information of my personal assistants will soon be given to SEIU," Ludlum said at a news conference in the Capitol complex, calling SEIU "a union with a long history of deception and intimidation."

Other opponents, including state Sen. Joe Markley, R-Southington, and state Rep. Robert Sampson, R-Wolcott, complained about Malloy acting outside of legislative oversight by issuing the executive order and expressed concern that rising wages might result in reduced services for the disabled.

"The issue I have is that these people did not ask for this," Sampson said of the care workers. "You certainly did not have an outcry from [personal care assistants] saying that they need to be unionized."

Melissa Pinnick, an SEIU organizer, offered a rebuttal after the GOP-led news conference, emphasizing that Malloy's order provided the care assistants a choice that they previously didn't have.

"This is about personal care assistants having the right that everyone else does - to form a union," Pinnick said. "It's a democratic process and you can vote the way you want."

Pinnick said the contact list is important because the care assistants work out of clients' homes and do not congregate together to talk about matters like forming a union.

"There is no water cooler, there is no backroom," she said.

Personal care assistants currently receive no benefits or paid time off. The average hourly wage of personal and home health care aides was $11.52 in 2010, according to the state Labor Department.

Malloy spokesman Andrew Doba defended the governor's order requiring the release of the workers' contact information. "Information relating to state vendors has always been publicly available under our freedom of information laws," he said. "Is Senator [Markley] recommending that we keep secret how the state spends taxpayer money?"

A separate Malloy executive order in September initiated the unionization process for 4,100 home-based day care workers paid through the state's Care4Kids program. That group voted 1,603 to 88 last month to unionize. They are now represented by CSEA/SEIU Local 2001.

General Assembly approval is still required to extend full collective bargaining rights to either the day care workers or personal care assistants.


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