By Andrew Staub | PA Independent
An attempt to organize home-care workers across Pennsylvania hit a speed bump Thursday when a Commonwealth Court judge issued an order that would bar a union — if chosen to represent the workers — from coming to any terms with Gov. Tom Wolf.
The injunction was issued the same day the United Home Care Workers of Pennsylvania was wrapping up an election in the hope of becoming the representative for about 20,000 home-care workers. Wolf, a Democrat, enabled the election with an executive order in February.
“This really takes the teeth out of what the union was intending to do,” said David Osborne, an attorney with The Fairness Center, a public-interest law firm that represents a Phoenixville man and his home-care worker who sued Wolf over the executive order.
Still, the order doesn’t mark a total victory for The Fairness Center. The union can still proceed with its election, and it could still meet with the secretary of the Department of Human Services as the representative for home-care workers. But it can’t reach any memorandums of mutual understanding with the government.
That likely is why Wolf took a decidedly more positive view about the order. Reiterating his stance that home-care workers need to have a voice in shaping their industry, the governor issued a statement calling the order “a victory for seniors, consumers, and direct care attendants.”
“We need to ensure the homecare sector is able to attract qualified attendants so that seniors have the option to age in a home or community-based setting,” Wolf said. “This decision allows for a critical conversation to move forward about protecting seniors as they age and treating attendants with the respect that they have earned.”
The full Commonwealth Court will hear legal arguments regarding The Fairness Center’s lawsuit in September, meaning the executive order could still be struck down. And even though union can proceed with its election before that occurs, Osborne said the outcome would be “essentially meaningless.”
“The union will not be able to come to terms with the state and, more importantly, will not be able to get the state’s help in taking dues out of home care workers’ paychecks,” he said in a statement. “The court will now have to decide whether Wolf’s order violated the state Constitution by effectively circumventing the state Legislature and making law by executive fiat.”
David Smith, who has muscular dystrophy and relies on a home care worker, is suing Gov. Tom Wolf over an executive order that opens the door for a union to organized direct-care workers.
The governor’s office has denied the executive order allows for unionization, but material distributed by the United Home Care Workers makes repeated references to forming a union, such as providing instructions about how to vote in “our union election.”
The United Home Care Workers of Pennsylvania is a joint effort among the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Service Employees International Union, two of Wolf’s campaign donors.
Critics of the executive order argue unionization would complicate the relationship between patients and their home-care workers, including making it difficult to fire workers.
On Wednesday, a day before the Commonwealth Court order was issued, Republican state senators spent part of the morning pressing Ted Dallas, Wolf’s nominee for secretary of the Department of Human Services, about the executive order when he appeared before the Public Health and Welfare Committee.
Echoing past statements by the governor’s office, Dallas said the executive order doesn’t allow for collective bargaining. He described it as giving about 20,000 home-care workers “a seat at the table,” by allowing them to elect a representative who could have “meet-and-confer” sessions with him to discuss issues affecting the workers.
“It doesn’t make anybody state employees. It doesn’t force anybody to join a union. It merely provides for an opportunity for folks to come and meet with me through the process that’s set forth in the executive order,” Dallas said.
Republicans remained skeptical, wondering why it would take an executive order to facilitate talks between Dallas and home-care workers.
“Aren’t you already enabled to talk to those people?” asked state Sen. Bob Mensch, R-Montgomery. “You can understand why we’re a bit suspicious on the motivations of the governor on this executive order.”