Home care workers organized by SEIU Healthcare Minnesota
like Cathy Gillman and Dawn Burnfin spent Tuesday at the state Capitol sharing their stories with legislators, as care workers, consumers and family members face what is being called a “care crisis.” They spent the day speaking to both Democrats and Republicans.
Gillman is a determined mother raising a child with mental health needs. Since her child was born she has struggled to find a responsive program to meet her child’s needs, only to be rejected time and again.
Despite feeling discouraging, she found that having a Personal Care Assistant (PCA) support her child and herself gave necessary relief. Gillman came to speak with legislators on Tuesday because “people in direct care have been silenced and shutdown. We really don't have a voice.” She said, “our direct care is in crisis, and it affects everything.”
As the state’s population ages, the need for caregivers will grow rapidly, with most recent estimates projecting a need for at least 20,000 additional home care workers in the state over the next decade.
PCA Dawn Burnfin explains that “up on the Range, you have a huge aging population. They have worked hard all their lives.” She believes that these retired workers deserve the dignity of living at home as they age and receive care “on their own terms.” From Gillman’s perspective, home care saves the “state millions of dollars by keeping people in their homes where they want to be.”
Both Burnfin and Gillman assert that they are also protecting their profession. Without better wages and benefits it is hard to imagine that the unemployed or underemployed will look to homecare work for a job with dignity.
How did it get to this point?
In January 2017, SEIU Healthcare Minnesota members and state officials with Minnesota Management and Budget announced that they had reached a tentative agreement on a new, second contract for all 20,000+ home care workers in the state’s consumer-directed programs. Union members voted overwhelmingly to ratify that tentative agreement.
Both ratifications of the tentative agreement and appropriation of funds require the legislature’s approval. A bipartisan group of legislators in both chambers sponsored ratification and appropriation bills (House Files 2286 and 2399 and Senate Files 2066 and 2067), with language identical to sections of Governor Dayton’s HHS budget proposal.
The Legislative Coordinating Committee’s Subcommittee on Employee Relations (the committee that usually reviews and makes recommendations to the legislature on whether to ratify state Union contracts) declined to hold a hearing on the home care tentative agreement. As the legislature entered the special session, the contract remained uncertain.
After negotiations between House and Senate leaders and the governor, the final version of that bill was presented to the legislature for a vote. The bill included ratification of a contract for home care workers, but only half of the funding that the tentative agreement reached between SEIU Healthcare Minnesota members and the state in January. When Burnfin heard the news that the funding for the ratified contract was cut in half, she explained that it felt, “like we got a punch in the gut.”
Working for Change
Gillman came to the state Capitol to speak to the legislature determined to be heard, since she believes that, “it's not that people aren’t speaking up, it's that they are not being heard.” Her organizing with SEIU and participation in Tuesday’s events is rooted in her desire to “help build something that works.”
Burfin's advocacy wasn’t preordained. “I am from Missouri; unions are a bad thing,” she said. Burfin thinks of herself as someone who questions things, seeing herself embracing the legacy of her grandmother who, “was born a Republican southern Baptist, and died a Democratic Catholic.” While inquisitive, in Missouri, “nobody had the answer, no support for change.” Moving to Minnesota, she was at first surprised at the presence of unions, and found herself, “shocked and horrified that the bag boys at the grocery store where unionized.” However, she quickly embraced a neighbor's willingness to discuss things. She eventually concluded that, “they [unionized workers] are paid well. They have insurance. They have benefits; maybe it is not so bad.” Burfin has been an active union supporter ever since.
Both women are fighting to protect an industry they find personally rewarding and dignifying for those they care for. They want the legislature to be similarly concerned with the welfare and dignity of home care workers and fully fund their contract. They are both dealing with serious economic hardship due to the low wages.
Burnfin shared that two years ago the home she rented was sold. She was forced to quickly move with her partner of 5 years and two children. She was able to find a good deal for a new home, however it needed work. The roof needs replacing. Not being able to afford the repairs on her own, she had to get insurance to qualify for a special program to rehabilitate homes. She simply can’t afford the insurance. In the meantime, water is poring through the compromised roof, leading to damage to walls. With so much water in the walls she is worried that eventually mold will manifest. If the full funding for the contract had been passed by the legislature as originally intended, Burnfin believes that she would have enough money to take care of everything. “I am literally fighting to keep a safe roof over my family's head,” Burnfin said. “It’s not like I'm not trying.”
Accordingly, SEIU Healthcare argues that,
“Minnesota needs to substantially increase compensation for its consumer-directed home care workforce. While a living wage is what’s needed, that will have to wait for future negotiations. However, what the governor and state legislators should do at a minimum this year, is restore the funding they cut during the 2017 special session from the agreement home care workers and the state had reached in January 2017. This would cost $12 million in Fiscal Year 2019, and it would be a modest but critical step toward addressing the state’s worsening care crisis.”