12,000 homecare workers in Oregon say 'Union Yes'

In the largest public sector union victory in Oregon history, homecare workers employed by the State of Oregon decided in a December vote-by-mail election to join Service Employees International Union Local 503, Oregon Public Employees Union.

When the State of Oregon Employment Relations Board counted the ballots Dec. 14, the result was an overwhelming "Union Yes" vote - 4,668 to 418 - 92 percent. The vote means 12,000 new members will join Local 503, bringing its membership to over 34,000.

Karla Spence, external organizer for Local 503, said the turnout was the highest ever among elections with homecare workers, who work solo providing in-home care for the sick and disabled in what amounts to over 10,000 individual work sites. The election was also part of a nationwide campaign to unionize homecare workers. In mid-December, 22,000 homecare workers voted to unionize in New York.

The Oregon vote was the culmination of a four-year campaign among the workers. The issues that drove them to want a union include low wages, lack of health care, lack of training and no workers' compensation.

"Twenty years of being unrecognized, underpaid, with no benefits, essentially an invisible workforce has made many of us frustrated and searching for solutions." said Herk Mertens, a Waldport homecare worker. "I honestly feel the union is the only way homecare workers and our clients have the ability to be visible, to have a voice decision-makers will hear, and to press for improvements in the quality of care and working conditions."

"The homecare program saves Oregon taxpayers millions of dollars a year," said Portland homecare worker Joye Willman. "On average $20,000 per client per year savings, by keeping seniors and people with disabilities out of nursing homes and in their own homes where they can live with dignity. We deserve to be respected and live with dignity as well."

Before they could file for a union election, homecare workers had to first win the right to unionize. Seeing the benefits of unionizing for reducing turnover and increasing quality of care, advocates for seniors and people with disabilities allied to back Measure 99, which passed in every Oregon county in November 2000. The measure created a commission to ensure quality and to serve as an employer of record so that the workers could unionize.

The new sub-local, known as Homecare Workers Local 99, will start contract negotiations in early 2002 across the table from the newly-created Homecare Commission. The commission was appointed by Governor John Kitzhaber and includes homecare recipients and representatives from government and private non-profit social service entities.

Union leaders hope the high pro-union margin will demonstrate to the commission that the home care bargaining unit is highly unified.

December 21, 2001 issue

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