A snowstorm may have closed down schools and the federal government yesterday, but there was no snow day for a delegation of SEIU Healthcare Illinois home care workers and consumers, who traveled to Washington, D.C. to be on hand for the oral arguments in the Harris v. Quinn case going before the U.S. Supreme Court.
The case threatens to destabilize the workforce that allows more than 30,000 people with disabilities to live independently in their homes. "We can't afford to go back to the bad old days when people with disabilities were forced into institutions because they couldn't find consistent care and home care workers lived in terrible poverty," said Flora Johnson, PA and chairperson of the SEIU Healthcare Illinois executive board.
The backstory: Ten years ago in Illinois, thousands of home care workers in Illinois decided to join a union. (Today, SEIU Healthcare Illinois represents over 27,000 home care workers). Since then, hourly wages have jumped 65 percent, the workers now receive regular training and they have health insurance. And it's not just in Illinois.
Over the last several years, home care workers in many states across the U.S. have formed unions and bargained wage increases, benefits, paid time off and training, all of which have helped reduce turnover and made it easier to recruit and retain workers in the home care industry. This, in turn, has vastly improved quality of care for seniors and people with disabilities in those state programs, and allowed them to remain in their homes to live with dignity.
That progress is threatened via Harris v. Quinn. The case was brought to the Supreme Court by the extremist right-wing National Right to Work Committee, which seeks to take away the right of home care workers to collectively bargain. If this occurred, writes Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson, "home-care givers -- a group that is overwhelmingly female, disproportionately minority and almost universally poor -- would be highly unlikely to get any more raises. Turnover rates within the care-provider workforce would surely rise."
"Allowing workers to organize to improve their wages and benefits is an important tool to building a home care system that can better respond to the needs of an aging demographic and those currently living with disabilities," said Henry Claypool, executive vice president for the American Association of People with Disabilities.
In Illinois specifically, Harris v. Quinn threatens a home care program that keeps 30,000 people with disabilities safe and independent.
Rahnee Patrick, a Chicago-based consumer whose conditions confine her to a wheelchair, noted that during the recent polar vortex,
"I had a personal assistant come to me at 5 o'clock in the morning in my house. She rode an hour in the snow, from the North Side of Chicago. Why was she so dedicated? Not because I'm lovely, but because she gets a really good wage, and the wage came from the unions being able to collectively bargain. I can actually go to work, and it's because of her being able to pay her own bills that I'm able to pay my bills."
Lisa Madigan, the attorney general of Illinois, summed up the relationship between consumers, workers and her state: "There's no way to say the system isn't working for the state of Illinois."
Observers present during Tuesday's oral arguments before the Court reported that the justices seemed skeptical regarding the National Right to Work Committee's arguments. (For additional details, see the partial transcripts and reporting from On Labor's Jack Goldsmith).
A decision for Harris v. Quinn is expected to come between now and the spring or summer decision. As for its outcome? "We are very hopeful," says Flora Johnson. "We will have our voices heard."
Learn more about the case and the workers it could impact by watching our video, below.