Home care workers deserve to retire

A modest retirement benefit for state-paid home care workers risks getting hung up at the Legislature.

We think care workers who tend to the bathing, cooking, cleaning, laundry and shopping needs of elderly and disabled people in the Medicaid program deserve a retirement benefit. The question is how to get it to happen politically — and not see it become a bargaining chip for those who want to weaken collective bargaining rights.

Under a two-year contract negotiated by Service Employees International Union 775 Northwest, care workers would receive pay raises of 94 cents per hour over two years, increasing starting pay for care workers to $12 and the average pay to $14.

The new retirement benefit is worth another 23 cents per hour worked. This defined contribution benefit, much like a 401(k), would be managed for workers through a trust that included officers from SEIU and the state on its board. Three arbitrators in past negotiations had concluded the workers were entitled to a retirement benefit.

Sen. Andy Hill, the Redmond Republican and chief budget negotiator in the Senate, has said the cost is less of an issue than legal concerns. He said inclusion of a retirement benefit could blur the line in such a way that a contract worker paid by the state could be considered a state employee.

“Our concern is if the state starts paying a pension benefit it takes them one step closer to becoming state employees,” Hill explained in a recent meeting with our editorial board. “Then we are looking at huge exposure for past benefits.”

Such a legal outcome should be avoided.

Hill acknowledged that care workers are relatively low paid and that the new retirement benefit is modest. That is why in his proposed two-year budget, he fully funded the 23 cents but proposed it as additional pay — not for retirement. But other members of his caucus would like to bar such a benefit entirely.

Adam Glickman, secretary-treasurer for the union, says it is “a bit unrealistic” to think workers earning $12 an hour, and struggling to make ends meet, would set aside the 23 cents an hour for retirement on their own.

About 40,000 care workers, who work as individual providers hired by Medicaid clients, are affected by the ongoing dispute.

Both sides have suggested solutions. SEIU proposed a memorandum of understanding that clarifies individual providers of home care services — who are hired by Medicaid clients — would not be eligible for other state retirement programs. SEIU also suggested that language could be enacted in its contract clarifying that the workers are not state employees.

And it supports changes in state law adding home care workers to those specifically excluded from benefits in the Public Employees Retirement System.

Hill said a memorandum is not legally binding. He said the GOP has suggested having SEIU charge higher dues, then route the extra funds into retirement accounts.

But that could be a problem for SEIU, which is being sued by the Freedom Foundation, a libertarian think tank that wants to ensure that home care workers can opt out of paying union dues or related fees under terms of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2014.

We take Hill at his word when he says home care workers have “a tough job. They are saving the state lot of money. We want to take care of them.’’

His legislative colleagues and the union should find a way to solve this problem.