PCAs of JP unite?

David Taber

Faced with the prospect of organizing the state’s estimated 22,000 Personal Care Assistants (PCAs) for an October union election, the Service Employee’s Union local 1199 (SEIU 1199) held their first JP community PCA organizing meeting June 27.

Jeff Hall, spokesperson for SEIU 1199, estimates there are over 100 PCAs in JP. Three attended the afternoon meeting.

PCAs, who assist people with disabilities in their daily activities, enabling them to live independently, are hired by their direct employers but generally paid by the state Medicaid system.

The workers are paid $10.84 an hour, with no benefits, vacation or sick time. “There is no incentive for PCAs,” said Wanda Last, who, despite the onerous conditions, has worked as a PCA for the last 15 years and has worked for the last “five years straight with no day off,” she said.

Last summer, over a veto by then Governor Mitt Romney, the state legislature unanimously passed a bill allowing PCAs employed through the state the right to unionize. SEIU 1199 lobbied for the legislation and is now bidding to represent PCAs across the state.

The organizing drive presents a unique challenge for the union. “Usually a union takes off because people come into the workplace and talk to each other,” observed Liz Casey, who has Multiple Sclerosis and employees PCAs.

PCAs generally work out of their employer’s homes and are not necessarily in close contact with one another so, instead of organizing in the work place, SEIU 1199 is relying on community meetings and mailings to get the word out.

But attendance was thin at the June meeting, and, reportedly, monthly citywide meetings have only drawn an average of 12 to 24 PCAs. Efforts to reach PCAs by mail are on hold until the official list of all the registered PCAs in the state is released by the American Arbitration Association, which is running the election, three to four weeks before ballots are cast.

The union and the workers have a unique ally, though¬¬—a statewide network of activists in the Independent Living Movement (ILM), a self-advocacy movement made up of people with disabilities which, since the 1970s has fought for deinstitutionalization and equal opportunity.

It was the success of the ILM that popularized personal care assistance as a profession in the first place, and disability rights advocates were instrumental in getting the union legislation passed.

Those who employ PCA’s, often known as service “consumers”, are interested in making sure their employees are taken care of, Casey said. Since PCAs are not given sick days, “helpers come in sick with the flu or a cold and I go through a cycle of getting sick from these people. It’s just like a great big family.”

Hall said the union, along with disability rights advocates, is doing everything it can to get the word out about what he said will be a historic vote.

SEIU 1199 will win the right to represent Massachusetts PCAs in October by a simple majority of votes cast, Hall said.

Casey also sits on the PCA Quality Workforce Council (PQWC), a nine-person group formed under the legislation to act as the PCAs’ employer for the purpose of contract negotiations. The PQWC is also responsible for establishing a referral directory of PCAs, establishing a mechanism for respite referrals and providing training for PCAs, among other things.

“It’s a highly unusual situation where all of us work together,” Casey said.

But now it is just a matter of getting the word out to the workers that it is time to organize.

And the PCAs had some constructive criticism for SEIU organizers at the meeting. One complaint was about an advertising flyer that described the meeting as a discussion about benefits and did not mention the union.

“They ought to know from the flyer that something is happening now. We are unionizing now,” said PCA Lily Capello.

The meeting closed with a rousing rendition of the labor song “Whose Side Are You On?” led by SEIU organizer Vaughn Williams.

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