Homecare workers get retirement, harassment policy in new contract

By Don McIntosh

About 30,000 Oregon home care workers will get $15 an hour and protections against on-the-job sexual harassment in their new two-year union contract. Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 503 and the Oregon Department of Human Services (DHS) reached tentative agreement Sept. 4 on the terms of the deal. The contract covers workers employed through the state’s home care registry who provide in-home care for senior and disabled individuals, whether paid privately or through Medicaid.

Under the new contract, worker base pay will rise 35 cents an hour (2.4%), on Jan. 1, 2020, to $15 an hour. In the second year of the agreement, workers expect to gain access to a retirement savings plan for the first time: DHS and the governor have committed to seek legislative approval for a 5% wage increase that would be deposited into individual accounts in the state-sponsored retirement savings plan OregonSaves. If they choose to, workers would be allowed to put some or all of the increase into wages instead.

“What we’re trying to do is stabilize the workforce,” says Local 503 spokesperson Ben Morris. “As the baby boomers start to age into needing long-term care, we really want a stable work force. And a retirement plan connected to the job makes people see the value of staying long term.”

Meanwhile, Local 503 says the sexual harassment policy is a first-in-the-nation for home care workers. The new contract sets up a process for reporting inappropriate behavior to DHS. Workers reporting harassment will continue to get paid while DHS investigates, but won’t have to go back into the home in question. DHS must determine that the home is safe before other home care workers are allowed back into the home.

“We’ve already gotten calls from other SEIU locals around the country who say this is a great idea and they want to do something similar,” Morris said.

Morris says improved wages and working conditions are benefiting not just home care workers but their clients. Since 2001, when state-paid home care workers settled their first union contract, annual employee turnover has fallen from 50% to 27%.

“Turnover is so important in long term care that it’s often used as a stand-in for quality,” Morris said, “so we want to get that as far down as we can.”

A ratification vote among home care workers is under way and will wrap up by Oct. 1.

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