Proposal 4 would establish home-help registry; protect workers' right to unionize

Oct 29, 2012

There’s a debate in Michigan over whether people who provide in-home help to those with disabilities and some elderly should be guaranteed the right to collective bargaining under a Constitutional amendment.

That’s part of what Proposal 4 is about.

Elizabeth Schultz lives in an apartment in Holland with her cat, Kiko.  Schultz is college educated, teaches a class at a community mental health agency and is a deacon at her church.

Schultz also has cerebral palsy. She needs help doing nearly everything. She describes herself as 45 years old from the neck up, but from the neck down, little better than an infant.   

“When people see me, they look at the chair and assume that I don’t have any intellect and they talk down to me and they want to treat me like a child,” Schultz says.

Leah Kroll, 51, has been Schultz’s primary caregiver for the last eight years.  She comes over twice a day to help Schultz out of bed, into the bathroom and shower. Kroll cooks, cleans and does everything Schultz can’t. 

"We call it the monster in the room, because it’s kind of always there, isn’t it," she says. "It’s something that tugs at you many times a day when it comes to things that you want to do, or places you want to go."

Schultz’s greatest fear is that without reliable home help care,  she could end up in a nursing home.  

Tesille LaFever, 47, of Warren has worked as a caregiver for 15 years. She has two clients for whom she provides a variety of services.

"I do laundry, I cook for them. I give them showers," LaFever says. "But I'm also there for companionship. We talk. I know  what kind of medicine she takes. I do pretty much everything you could think of -- like  if you had to take care of somebody at your home."

LaFever says training provided by the State of Michigan has been very helpful to her. She points to a large binder filled with class materials on her coffee table .

"CPR and first aid is one of them. Dementia is another. Bipolar, safety, transporting a person from a wheelchair to a bed or a bed to a chair, or the car, or the bathtub. We've been through tons of stuff in training," LaFever says.

The binder also contains the certifications LaFever received after completing her classes.

LaFever believes she and her clients are protected by  her membership in the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU.

"We have a choice, just like the client has a choice to pick you," she says. "If you have any reason that you feel you don't want to work with this  person, then you don't have to."

But a lawsuit filed by the Mackinac Center of Michigan is challenging a requirement that caregivers like Kroll and LaFever join the union, or pay an agency fee for helping them find clients.

The Mackinac Center says because caregivers are paid in Medicaid dollars, they are private contractors, not public employees, so they can’t be in the union.

Proposal 4 would decide the issue:  Let home health workers organize and protect it in the Constitution.

It would also create a registry of workers who pass background checks, provide training for in-home care workers, and financial services to patients to manage the cost of in-home care.

But it’s the union part that some people oppose.

Patrick Wright a lawyer who works at the Mackinac Center.

He says Proposal Four is nothing more than a money grab by the Service Employees International Union –or SEIU.

"The concept of a criminal background check and registry are both uncontroversial, but they’ve changed to what I consider a poison pill of turning people who aren’t public employees into public employees, and thereby allowing the SEIU to gather about $6 million a year out of this program that should be going into low-income families that need help raising developmentally disabled children that are now adults or the elderly," Wright says.

The SEIU didn’t respond to repeated requests for an interview. Instead, we heard from Dohn  Hoyle, who co-chairs Citizens for Affordable Quality Home Care.  Hoyle says the union does a lot for in-home caregivers.

"People who provide these important services were receiving less than minimum wage in many cases,  and certainly even where wages were above minimum wage, competing with McDonald’s for staff, once the workers organized, then the exemption that allowed them to pay less than minimum wage was overturned," Hoyle says.

Minimum wage in Michigan is $7.40 an hour.

The average pay for home help workers is $8.00 an hour. They don’t get health insurance, vacation or travel reimbursement. Their union dues are 2.5 percent of their earnings. They are not obligated to join the union, but if they decline, caregivers must pay an agency fee of about 2 percent. That fee is in return for helping caregivers find clients.

Proponents believe Prop 4 will help workers continue to get better pay and help protect the people they care for.

Opponents say the state has enough safeguards and doesn’t need union interference.

*This story was informed by the Public Insight Network. Share your story here.