In ballots counted June 2, a unit of 7,751 state-paid personal service providers voted to unionize with Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 503. The vote brings Local 503’s total membership up to 54,000, surpassing Oregon Education Association and making it the state’s largest union.
The new unit consists of people paid by the Oregon Department of Human Services to care for adults with developmental disabilities or mental illnesses. Program funding comes from Medicaid.
Some of the caregivers are hired through local “brokerages,” but about three-fifths are parents or relatives of the person being cared for, like Lana Nelson of Sutherlin, Oregon. The program pays Nelson $9.23 an hour, up to 114 hours a month, to help her live-in daughter Nicole, who has Down’s Syndrome. The work can include bathing, dressing, grooming, moving, feeding, administering medicine, diaper changes, and serving as a companion, as well as shopping, housework, and preparing meals. Work like that can be very isolating, Nelson said. Nelson told the Labor Press she voted for the union in part as a way to build community. “It’s so that we all have a voice.”
The group was able to unionize thanks to legislation introduced in 2009 by State Rep. Michael Dembrow (D-Portland). House Bill 3618 added this unit to the existing group of caregivers who have the Oregon Homecare Commission as their employer of record for the purpose of collective bargaining. Dembrow is a former president of Portland Community College Faculty Federation Local 2277, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.
Of 7,751 ballots mailed out, 2,655 were returned and counted, for a turnout of about 35 percent. The result was 71 percent in favor of unionizing (1,873 to 772).
There was no organized opposition. Local 503 organizers called and visited workers, and the campaign set up a web site, www.dignityoregon.org.
The State of Oregon Employment Relations Board was expected to certify the unit June 14, as this issue went to press.
Local 503 spokesperson Ed Hershey said the union intends to bring the new unit into already-begun negotiations for other home care workers, and hopes to get a first contract for them this year. A statewide bargaining conference is scheduled for June 26 at Willamette University, where caregivers will determine bargaining priorities.
The unit is the largest group of workers to unionize in Oregon since 10,000 home care providers for seniors and people with physical disabilities joined Local 503 in 2001. Besides the new group, Local 503 represents 10,000 home care workers for seniors and people with physical disabilities, 4,000 employment-related day care workers, 3,500 adult foster home care providers, 19,000 state agency workers, 4,000 classified employees of the Oregon State University System, 3,000 local government workers, 2,500 nursing home workers, and 600 employees of private non-profit agencies.