- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 1, 2014

SEATTLE (AP) - Washington labor, government and business officials are still reading and analyzing the dense U.S. Supreme Court ruling this week on union dues for home health care workers, but many believe Harris v. Quinn will have implications for Washington state.

That impact could go well beyond the 35,000 union represented home health care workers in the state and also affect the thousands who care for children with disabilities in their homes as well as medical interpreters.

“You’ve got a pretty substantial group of people who might be impacted,” state Sen. Steve Conway, who is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee, said Tuesday.

The court ruled on Monday that thousands of home health care workers in Illinois cannot be required to pay fees that help pay for collective bargaining by a union because the practice violates the First Amendment rights of nonmembers.

Conway, D-Tacoma, said he will have to consult with Washington’s Public Employment Relations Commission to understand the full impact of Harris v. Quinn, but he hopes the decision won’t hurt home health care workers who have made a lot of progress since voters gave them the right to bargain collectively in 2001.

“From my perspective, the good that has been gained from raising the pay rates for these workers far outweighs the question of free speech here,” said Conway, who has worked in the private sector negotiating contracts with labor unions for more than 20 years.

The conservative Freedom Foundation expects the decision will allow workers to opt out of union participation, saving themselves money but potentially devastating Washington unions.

“Harris v. Quinn is another significant step towards the undoing of compulsory unionism, both in Washington state and the nation,” said Maxford Nelsen, labor policy analyst with the Olympia-based think tank and advocacy organization, in a statement.

According to Washington’s Public Employment Relations Commission, all three groups - home health care workers, caregivers for disabled children and medical interpreters - negotiate their reimbursement rates with the state in a similar way.

Mike Sellars, the commission’s executive director, said his agency needs to determine if they have to create a new process in the wake of the Supreme Court decision. Washington’s attorney general also is studying the decision.

Jackson Holtz, a spokesman for the Service Employees International Union Healthcare 775NW, said the way Washington’s home health care workers bargain is very different from the Illinois system. The Supreme Court decision won’t change their direction, he said.

In 2005, the Legislature passed the first SEIU negotiated contract for home health workers, following the workers’ decision to form a union in 2002.

In the nearly 10 years since, their wages have increased by 40 percent, and they have gained health insurance, paid time off, mileage reimbursement and other benefits, Holtz said. On Tuesday, home health care workers in Washington got a 50-cent raise, pushing their wages to $11 an hour.

The chairman of the volunteer-run Elder Care Alliance says the union has not just made a difference for workers; it has helped the state save money on elder care and has helped improve the quality of home health care.

“For a long time, we subsidized our state financed care system by paying low wages to front line workers both in home care, nursing home care and assisted living,” said Jerry Reilly, chair of the Elder Care Alliance and former assistant secretary of the Department of Social and Health Services.

Better wages and more training for workers has led to less caregiver turnover as well as better quality care, said Reilly, who lobbies the Legislature on health care issues. It has also helped the state save millions of dollars by shifting more people into less expensive home care from institutions.

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