Illinois funnels training to big donor union


By Mark Fitton
For Illinois News Network

CARBONDALE — While a suburban Chicago woman’s successful lawsuit against Illinois means home care workers who receive government stipends do not have to join a union, many still must attend training presented by the union.

And those mandatory sessions — which the state funds — devote a half-hour for the union to pitch itself and distribute membership sign-up cards.

Critics say the contractual arrangement between the state and the Service Employees International Union is an obvious “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” deal between elected officials and a union that generously supports them.

Quinn vs. Harris

Pamela Harris of Lake County is the home health care provider for her adult son, who suffers from a genetic condition that causes severe physical and developmental disabilities.

Harris and others like her who provide care for loved ones receive a Medicaid stipend from state-administered programs designed to help people with disabilities continue to live in their homes.

Harris and seven others sued Gov. Pat Quinn, arguing they were not state employees and should not be forced to join a union or pay so-called fair share dues or “agency fees” to cover unions’ bargaining costs.

The case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, with the court ruling 5-4 in June that the workers could not be forced to join the union or pay fees.

While the court held those caring for family were not state employees, the ruling did not invalidate mandatory union membership for traditional state employees.

Contractual deal

In the December 2012 contract between the Illinois Department of Human Services and the union and an accompanying document, the paid training sessions were identified as voluntary.

However, in a December 2013 side letter between IDHS and Service Employees International, the document specifies the sessions are mandatory for both newly hired and “incumbent” members of the bargaining unit.

The contracts also makes clear the union will have time for recruiting: “The Union shall have 30 minutes of access to training for the purpose of meeting and talking with Personal Assistants and distributing and collecting membership cards in accordance with current practice. Such time spent shall be unpaid. The state shall furnish the Union with a table at the entrance and exit to all trainings.”

The state is obligated to pay up to $2 million annually to the union for the training sessions, according to the contractual documents of 2012 and 2013.

Are those personal health care assistants exempted by the Supreme Courts’ Harris v. Quinn decision compelled to attend the sessions and the half-hour union pitches?

For the most part, yes, said Bill Messenger, the National Right to Work Committee lawyer who represented the plaintiffs in Harris v. Quinn.

He said although personal assistants can no longer be forced to join the union or pay agency fees, they are still considered members of the bargaining unit. As such, the training sessions, including the union pitch, are mandatory.

Messenger added that appears to be the case at least for one of two groups of personal assistants — those who received stipends under the departments “Rehabilitation Program,” but not the other group, who receive stipends under the “Disabilities Program.”

Pamela Harris is in the latter group, and it does not appear she can be compelled to attend, he said. Personal assistants paid through the rehab program must attend.

Letter, sessions

A Sept. 26, 2014, letter sent to home service providers by the Illinois Department of Human Services’ Division of Rehabilitation Services notified personal assistants of their obligation to attend.

“You have been identified as an Individual Provider (IP) currently working for a customer of the Division of Rehabilitation/Home Services Program (HSP). HSP is committed to ensuring high quality customer care and services to our customers. As a result, your are required to participate in mandatory PAID training about Fraud, Abuse, Neglect, Exploitation and the Basics Roles of being an Individual Provider.

“Please note that your contract as an IP employed by a Customer in HSP requires your mandatory participation.”

The training sessions began in October and continue through mid-December. Locations run the length of the state, from Chicago to Anna, and include the union’s Chicago headquarters, state office locations and hotels.

The critics

The National Right to Work Committee is among critics who say the state-funded, union provided training — including time for union recruiting — is more than a friendly management-labor relationship.

Patrick Simmons, the committee’s director for legal information, said it is a scam or scheme intended to get around the Harris v. Quinn decision “and give money back to the union that has been a big political backer.”

The SEIU has been a campaign contributor to the tune of millions to Democratic Illinois governors including Rod Blagojevich and Pat Quinn. It is the governor who has control over state cabinet or code agencies such as Human Services.

Messenger called the state-funded mandatory training and union pitch sessions “exactly a quid pro quo agreement” and “the new way to get around Harris v. Quinn.”

He also said the arrangement is not an “only in Illinois” situation. A similar agency rule exists in the State of Washington, and California has approved legislation to similar ends.

No response

It is not clear if the state or union would seek action against a personal care assistant who objects to or declines to attend the unpaid half-hour set aside for the union talk.

Questions left Friday with representatives of the Illinois Department of Human Services and the Service Employees International Union were not answered.