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Home Health Workers Unionize

Home Health Care workers in Massachusetts are expected to meet next month to begin bargaining with the state over salary and benefits. They'll be the first such negotiations for the estimated 22,000 aides who are paid by MassHealth to take care of elderly and disabled people in their homes.

The "Personal Care Assistants," as they're also known, will bargain as the newest members of the Service Employees International Union.

The SEIU announced yesterday that 94% of these workers voted overwhelmingly to sign up. Among them: Cecilia Yuca. WBUR's Bianca Vazquez Toness has more on the story.

TEXT OF STORY:

BIANCA VAZQUEZ TONESS: Cecilia Yuca voted for joining the union. She has spent the last three years caring for a woman with multiple sclerosis, who can't use her arms or legs. A typical day is intense.

CECILIA YUCA: Getting her set up, you know, for the day, getting up from bed,then dress her up, but the hardest, hardest part is just the details. You want to look nice, and you want to take care of your hair.TONESS: Yuca's standing next to Liz Casey, who is in a wheelchair. Yuca does a lot more than Casey's hair. She feeds and bathes her, pays bills and helps her go to the bathroom. All of this for $10.84 an hour, and no benefits.YUCA: It's really hard because I get sick and still come work for Liz, you know, because if I don't show up who's going to get her up, get her dressed. She's so busy going to meetings. If I don't show up, she's stuck.

TONESS: And if Yuca doesn't show up, she doesn't get paid.

For Casey, that's the most important thing. She says it's hard to find someone to do this job if they don't get benefits.

CASEY: I go on a summer vacation, do they go on a summer vacation? No. That is really, really hard. To watch them get sick and need to be out for two or three days and they're not. Those are the really tough issues.

TONESS: Casey found Yuca after posting an ad on Craigslist. She says finding a home health care worker can be a full time job, and turnover is high. She employs several people at a time since she needs around-the-clock care. And when she has trouble finding people, she feels vulnerable. That's why she's lobbied to unionize home health care workers, or personal care assistants as the union calls them.

DENNIS RIVERA: Today there are 22,000 PCA's throughout Massachusetts and thousands of consumers whose lives will improve because of your drive and commitment.

TONESS: Dennis Rivera heads the health worker campaign for the Service Employees International Union. His organization pushed to change the law in Massachusetts, thus allowing health workers to unionize. SEIU capitalized on the growing demand for personal care assistants, and the fear that as baby-boomers age, there won't be enough people to care for them.

The union representatives say about 6,500 home health care workers voted to join SEIU.
Rivera says the new members will soon meet and draft their demands for a contract.

RIVERA: We'd like to have an adequate salary, health care benefits for them, and a better life for them and their family.

TONESS: In New York state, where SEIU organized 60,000 personal care assistants, the union won a $3-an-hour raise, benefits and English classes for the health aides.

It's not clear how much the union will seek to increase wages here. But taxpayers will ultimately pick up the tab since on average, Medicaid pays more than half the cost of home health care workers.

People who employ personal care assistants say it's worth it, since it allows them to continue their lives, work, pay their bills, and stay out of nursing homes, which cost more.

This program aired on November 9, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.

Bianca Vázquez Toness Twitter Reporter
Bianca Vázquez Toness was formerly a report for WBUR.

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