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Home Care Workers Demand Justice Coast to Coast

By Susan Ellen Holleran

Thousands of home care workers are organizing with AFSCME to win decent pay and benefits — and the respect they deserve. 

Chico, California 
On June 14, David Thao celebrated a victory he had helped to create. Thao is a home care worker here and a leader in the area's Hmong community. Along with about 150,000 Hmong, he and his family came to the United States after the fall of Laos, where the Hmong had risked their lives as U.S. allies during the war in Vietnam.

Thao, who provides care for his father, had volunteered much of his time to the home care organizing campaign. In the Hmong culture, the son assists his parents if they become incapacitated. As many first generation Hmong immigrants have reached that stage, their sons have had to leave other occupations to help them. Thao realized that unionizing would nurture Hmong traditions while bringing families a living wage and benefits.

For more than 20 years, the United Domestic Workers of America-NUHHCE, an AFSCME affiliate, has organized home care workers. They have been invisible and voiceless — often taking home less than the minimum wage for long hours and very demanding work. Although many were employed by agencies, huge numbers were considered independent contractors and not covered by collective bargaining laws.

In California, low-income elderly or disabled residents can select their own caregivers — often friends or family members. The county, in concert with medical personnel, decides how many hours each client needs and pays for those hours. The wages come from county funds, but the counties didn't consider them employees.

Who's the boss?

The UDWA mounted a major political action and legislative campaign geared toward winning bargaining rights for home care workers. First they helped to elect supportive officials, including Gov. Gray Davis (D). Then they lobbied the legislature to enact a law forcing each county to designate an employer of record for its home care workers. The bill passed in 1999.

Now the union is going county to county: first to win bargaining rights, then to organize the workers. When the UDWA came to Butte County, here in northern California, they met with such community groups as the Hmong Advisory Council. The council convened a meeting of Hmong home care workers, and the cooperative effort continued from there.

One on one

Francine Picillo first learned about the union from her sister-in-law, Susan Smith. Picillo provides 24-hour live-in care for her blind client. The job can create a lonely and isolating lifestyle, with very little opportunity to socialize or attend meetings.

"The UDWA called me and came over to visit and talk about going union," says Smith. After Picillo cleared the visit with her client, Smith brought a union officer to discuss the prospect. The sisters-in-law played an active role in the organizing effort. Picillo put her trusty cell phone to good use throughout the campaign — finding the answers to potential members' questions and calling workers as part of the get-out-the-vote effort.

The ballots poured in, and when they were counted, a whopping 95 percent had voted to join UDWA. But as UDWA Pres. Ken Seaton-Msemaji told the workers that night, winning the election is only the beginning. Next step: getting a fair contract.

"You don't have to be a genius to figure out that having people do this work with low pay, no health care or sick leave, no pension is wrong," he said. "You are among the most important people in this country. Each of us [the public] — if we live long enough — will need a home care worker."

Now Butte County's home care workers are set to follow the example begun in San Diego where UDWA members recently won their first contract, covering 12,000 workers. That agreement includes a 26 percent pay increase and health insurance. A provision for agency shop was also adopted — by almost 90 percent of the voters.

San Diego

The Bohler family provides a dramatic example of how a union contract can change lives. June and Tom Bohler give round-the-clock care to their older son, Raymond, who was disabled through hospital carelessness when he was one month old.

"He needed a blood transfusion," says June. "They gave him O-positive blood even though I told them that he was O-negative." Raymond's nervous system was severely damaged, and he lost both his legs. "It's because of what happened to him that they now cross-match blood. He wasn't supposed to live beyond 7." Raymond is now 40.

June was very active during UDWA's organizing drive and served on the bargaining committee. "They were offering us a 25 cent increase. A committee member laid some quarters on the table and asked, ‘What are we going to get, a quarter at a time?'"

"I was extremely happy when we got a contract. I spent hours phonebanking from here."

The Bohlers' disposable income will increase by about $1,000 per month, including the pay hike and the fact that their health insurance costs will now be covered.

For Tom, the money means they'll be able to get needed work done on the house — and some little luxuries for Raymond.

Graduation day

Marbella Bolanos was born with numerous serious disabilities, and since that day she has been the center of her mother's life. Ines Bolanos joined the UDWA in 1997. Over the years she has been able to help other home care workers — particularly Spanish speakers — deal with San Diego County's red tape. "I like being a volunteer," she says. "I learned to become an advocate." In helping others, she found out how to protect her own and her daughter's rights.

After San Diego's home care workers joined AFSCME, Bolanos served on the bargaining committee and helped win a first contract she likes. "We live very humbly, and the money is a help," she says. "But the health insurance is very important. I used to have to cross the border [to Mexico] for medical care and prescriptions."

With all she has accomplished for her family and her community, Bolanos' greatest moment came as she watched Marbella graduate from high school in June. "I didn't think she would live this long," says Mom.

Her family may live humbly, but on that wonderful day they all gathered to witness a miracle as Marbella, in sparkling blue cap and gown, received her diploma with plans already made for college.

Newark, New Jersey

Sielta Ranjas is a tiny bundle of energy. She has been a home health aide with the Visiting Homemaker Service for nine years — during most of them as a member of a company union. When the workers failed to get that so-called union to respond to their concerns, their Committee for Change elected a new slate of officers and proceeded to affiliate as Local 306 with District 1199J, part of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees/ AFSCME.

Today, in addition to her work, Ranjas is a volunteer member organizer. She is helping bring the message of AFSCME power to the employees of other Newark-area agencies, particularly CHRILL (Chronically Ill). Her day is packed. She takes care of her clients, touches base with other home care workers in the city's high-rise senior centers, and spends her evenings at small group meetings or visiting workers' homes to promote unionizing.

"A whole lot of these workers are in their 60s and 70s and need help themselves," says Ranjas. "If I don't fight now, I never will. I'm there for my co-workers and myself."

On Aug. 1, on the heels of a vicious employer campaign, CHRILL employees voted 174-170 to join AFSCME. They join workers at four other agencies who now wear AFSCME green: Visiting Homemaker Service, New Community, Care At Home and Access.

Catch the bus

Most of the Garden State's home care workers are employed by agencies. They have the right to unionize — which few of California's caregivers had — but it is difficult to contact them. They do not operate out of a central location, but their jobs scatter them throughout the community.

Organizers used to visit the agencies on payday; so employers began to mail paychecks. Organizers tried waiting outside the agencies on in-service training days; then employers shortened the advance notice they give workers to make it more difficult for the union to know what was scheduled. The roadblocks kept interfering with communication. But thinking outside the box saved the day.

Most workers call on two clients per day — traveling between them by bus. The organizers realized that Newark's primary bus-transfer point was a natural place to meet. Now they go there at midday to talk to the workers between clients.

This year, college students participating in the Union Summer program are swelling the organizers' ranks. The contacts they make not only help with current efforts, but also provide leads with other agencies for future drives.


Robin Hood in Reverse

In 2001, an AFSCME-led coalition convinced New Jersey's legislature to increase funds to home care agencies so they could raise workers' wages by $1 an hour. But few non-union employees have seen a penny of that.

The employers, claiming to have found a legal loophole, are pocketing the funds to cover "administrative costs."

AFSCME-represented home care workers, on the other hand, have received their $1-per-hour increase and other negotiated wage and benefit increases. 

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