May Day 2014 Press: "Homecare Workers Union Strikes Tentative Deal With Administration" on VPR

Homecare Workers Union Strikes Tentative Deal With Administration
By PETER HIRSCHFELD

Original article here

Supporters of Vermont Homecare United-AFSCME line the audience in front of the state Labor Relations Board in June 2013 in Montpelier.

One year after winning the right to form a union, Vermont home care workers have reached a tentative contract with the Shumlin administration. The deal would mean higher wages for about 9,000 workers scattered across Vermont. But lawmakers still have to sign off on the proposal.

Vermont Homecare United is the state’s newest union, and already its second largest. Homecare workers provide government-funded services to disabled and elderly clients. Amanda Sheppard is a homecare worker from Bridport, and she says the pay for her and her colleagues can be dismal.

“And at the end of the day, we’re overworked, underpaid and not adequately being able to provide to ourselves, our families and our consumers,” Sheppard says

Since voting to unionize last fall, the union, a chapter of the American Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees, has been working with the Shumlin administration to negotiate its first collective bargaining agreement. This week, the sides reached a tentative deal that could mean significant raises in a profession where workers sometimes make minimum wage.

“The agreement we have reached does two primary things: it increases the minimum pay, hourly rate, to $10.80. And it also provides for a 2.5 percent COLA,” says Administration Secretary Jeb Spaulding.

That COLA, or cost of living adjustment, would only apply to people whose pay already meets or exceeds the $10.80 minimum. Susan Wehry, commissioner of the Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living, says the deal should help reduce the high turnover rate among homecare workers, and improve the general quality of the state’s program.

“So I think for both … recruiting …. and retaining workers, I think that the negotiated wage through collective bargaining has been a plus,” Wehry says.

But the proposed contract would have a significant impact on next year’s budget, adding $4 million in labor expenses to a program that costs about $50 million annually. Of that $4 million, about $2.2 million will have to come from the general fund. And with only one week left until adjournment, lawmakers will have to make significant last-minute adjustments to a budget they’ve spent four months developing.

“If the Legislature chooses not to provide adequate funding to fund the agreement, then the agreement is not in effect, and the parties have to go back to the table, which of course would be problematic when the Legislature’s not around,” Spaulding says.

Spaulding says he’ll go before the Legislature next week to outline a few possible plans to find revenues for the additional costs. Sheppard says homecare workers will be watching closely.

“There’s a huge amount of us that are out there making a lot of noise, and this contract is a document that’s going to voice our needs,” she says.

While homecare workers aren’t technically state employees, the new contract represents the latest push by the Shumlin administration to increased pay and conditions for workers performing taxpayer-funded government services. The most recent collective bargaining agreement with the state workers union set base pay at about $12.50 per hour. And the administration earlier this session signed off on a plan to provide paid sick days to temporary employees working for the state of Vermont.