A pending decision by the U.S. Supreme Court could have big ramifications for the ability of home-based child care workers to organize.
The outcome of the Harris v. Quinn case would particularly impact home-based child care workers that receive state funding, affecting how and if they are able to effectively unionize and collectively bargain, argues a new report by the Washington, DC-based National Women’s Law Center.
The report offers a snapshot of the growing national movement to unionize in-home child care providers, who are overwhelmingly female, are often paid low wages and usually do not get benefits. Home-based child care workers at publicly-funded operations in 14 states, including Illinois, have won the right to organize and negotiate with states. That's up from just seven states in 2007, when the law center issued its first report on the issue.
More recently, home-based child care providers who receive state funding in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island won organizing and bargaining rights. But in places like Maine, Michigan and Wisconsin, home-based child care workers have seen their authority to organize and negotiate with their respective states revoked over the past few years.
The report noted that the push to unionize home-based child care providers has faced increased opposition, mostly related to the broader anti-union movement.
"It's not as though what we're seeing is something specific to this group of providers, but rather much more conservative legislatures and governors taking office and pushing legislation that would curtail the rights of unions, both in the private and public sector in some cases," explained Joan Entmacher, vice president for family economic security at the National Women's Law Center.
And the Supreme Court's pending ruling in the Pamela Harris v. Pat Quinn case, which centers around home-based health care aides in Illinois, could potentially mean another major setback for in-home child care providers as well as other home care workers.
The Harris v. Quinn case was brought by the National Right to Work Committee against the state of Illinois, SEIU* Healthcare Illinois and Indiana, SEIU Local 73 and AFSCME Council 31 on behalf of a small group of home health care aides who are paid with state funds to provide assistance to disabled individuals. The plaintiffs in the case did not want to join a union and sued the state of Illinois, arguing that requiring them to pay union fees as a stipulation of their employment violates their First Amendment rights.
The Supreme Court's decision on the case could possibly affect public sector workers more broadly, or it could be limited to workers in specific home-based situations, Entmacher said.
"We need to wait and see what the court decides, and the case could go in a lot of different ways," she stressed.
The high court could affirm the decision of U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, which held that requiring individual personal health care workers to pay union fees does not violate their First Amendment rights.
"The Supreme Court has long said that state employees can form unions, and that if a majority of workers choose to join a union, then that union is their exclusive representative in collective bargaining. [And] that workers do not have to become members of unions," Entmacher explained. "Even if they don't become members, they get the benefits of the contract that the union negotiates, which also means that workers who receive these benefits have to pay a fair share towards the costs of collective bargaining and working out the contract terms."
"Fair share" union fees are at the crux of the court case. The Supreme Court could decide that fair share fees are legitimate and that "they help promote labor peace and representation by unions, which allows the state to negotiate with workers, and that actually has positive benefits for the state," Entmacher said.
But if the high court sides with the plaintiffs on the issue, that would "really make it almost impossible for unions to function," she stressed.
"That would be pretty far reaching too since the court has upheld fair share fees," Entmacher said. "If the court were to find a problem with fair share fees, then we would have to see how far did it apply that principle ... I think we're just going to have to wait and see."
The nation's high court heard oral augments on the case in late January, and a ruling is expected sometime this spring.
The state of Minnesota in particular is waiting to learn the Supreme Court's decision on the case. The state has already approved legislation regarding the organizing and bargaining rights of state-subsidized, home-based child care providers. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, however, stayed the law's implementation as it waits for the Supreme Court's ruling on Harris v. Quinn, which involves a similar statute.
Many in-home child care workers provide assistance to low-income families who receive state help for child care. Such workers who have gained the right to organize and negotiate with states have been able to bargain for things like higher payment rates, health insurance, improved payment procedures and expanded worker training programs.
"These are very substantial benefits," Entmacher said. "But also by professionalizing the workforce, and making it work in which you can stay and make a living, that's good for children as well ... We see this as a very important way of helping improve the quality of this home-based child care workforce."
Nationwide, there were an estimated one million paid home-based teachers and caregivers serving children ages zero through five in 2012. There were also 2.7 million unpaid home-based teachers and caregivers that year, according to a 2013 report from the Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation in the Administration for Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Home-based child care workers have annual earnings ranging from $6,200 in New Mexico to $16,367 in Washington state, according to available part-time and full-time wage information from the Center for Childcare Workforce.
Melissa Josephs, director of equal opportunity policy at Women Employed, said in-home child care workers play an essential role in the workforce by allowing parents to work outside of the home.
"It's such an important responsible role that we're asking someone to do, to take care of our children, that these workers need to be paid a reasonable wage and get reasonable hours and make sure that they're paid," Josephs said. "I know in general, child care workers do not get paid a lot, and I would imagine they're going to benefit from a collective bargaining agreement. At least they know what the wage is, that it's fair, that it's above minimum wage, that they're actually going to be paid, that it's enforceable."
Meanwhile, there are efforts in Illinois to extend and recognize various rights of other home-based workers in the state.
The proposed "Domestic Workers Bill of Rights" would require Illinois employers of housekeepers and other domestic workers to have contracts with their employees and pay them no less than the minimum wage. The measure would also guarantee domestic workers the right to paid time off as well as meal and rest periods, among other provisions.
Josephs and other advocates of the proposed legislation, which has failed to make it out of committee in previous state legislative sessions, are hoping to have to the bill voted out of the House's Business and Occupational Licenses Committee this week. The committee is slated to hold a hearing Wednesday on the legislation, HB 4714, which is sponsored by State Rep. Elizabeth Hernandez (D-Cicero).
"(Domestic workers) shouldn't be excluded for protections under state law that are extended to all other workers," Josephs stressed.
*The SEIU Illinois Council sponsors this website.