Massachusetts home care workers on Nov. 9 voted to join the Service Employees International Union Local 1199 (1199SEIU), the healthcare workers union. The vote passed by a landslide of 94 percent.
Currently, the state’s 22,000 homecare workers, or personal care assistants (PCAs), do not have benefits and receive no sick days or vacation time. They are paid a little over $10 an hour. Between 40 and 60 percent of PCAs leave their positions every year for jobs with benefits or higher compensation.
PCAs from across the state voted in the historic election through special mail-in ballot starting on Oct. 16. The election was the largest of its kind in the history of New England.
Local PCA Wanda Last, who works about 80 hours a week, said she cried when she heard the vote passed.
“This is a great day for home care workers, and also for the people they care for,” said 1199SEIU Executive Vice President Mike Fadel. “Stabilizing the PCA workforce will make it easier for seniors and people with disabilities to live at home with independence and dignity.”
The vote gives personal care attendants a voice for better wages and benefits and organizes them in a way that senior and disability advocates say will make them more accessible to those who require their essential services.
“We still have a long way to go,” Last told the Gazette. The union is currently drafting a contract, she said.
PCAs won the right to organize in Massachusetts in the summer 2006. Because they are directly hired by those who require their care, the state legislation granting PCAs the right to organize set up an independent council to act as their employer for collective bargaining purposes. That body, the PCA Quality Workforce Council, is made up of state officials and PCA users.
PCAs are forbidden to undertake work stoppages under the law, which was passed unanimously by both houses of the state legislature in July, 2006.
One challenge in developing a contract, Last said, is dealing with the varying number of hours PCAs work. Many work more than 40 hours a week and many only work part time, she said.
PCAs currently only get four or five holidays a year, Last said, and PCAs who work nights do not even get those.
Many say they believe a fair contract and improved working conditions will benefit PCA users as much as PCAs.
“This will significantly improve the lives of individuals who use PCAs,” said Bill Henning, executive director of the Boston Center for Independent Living. “This vote goes a long way toward correcting one of the biggest challenges facing seniors and people with disabilities in Massachusetts today, which is the constant difficulty in finding and retaining attendants.”
1199SEIU members say the victory will allow the union to devote even more energy and resources to another top priority—the effort to achieve “free and fair” union elections for the Commonwealth’s non-union hospital workers.
Sandra Storey contributed to this article