Feds Move to Unionize Home Health Care Workers

That isn't the explicit message of a new rule from the Labor Department, but it is its intended effect. On Tuesday, the Labor Department announced it was expanding federal minimum wage and overtime regulations to cover 2 million home health care workers. These are individuals, hired by families, to care for elderly or disabled patients who otherwise would be placed in nursing homes. Most of the costs of the care are paid for by federal or state Medicaid programs. This workforce has been a prime target of union organizers. 

Of SEIU's entire membership of 1.9 million, almost one-third, 600,000, are home health care workers. With an aging populace, the sector is one of the fastest growing in the nation. By 2020, the Labor Department expects the sector to employ more than 3 million workers. Unionizing this workforce would replenish labor's rapidly declining pool of members. 

Home health care workers fell through the cracks of federal law. Although their average wages are far above the minimum wage, they weren't always covered by the federal government's mandates on overtime pay and other labor workforce rules. The new rules announced by the Labor Department, effective in 2015, will necessarily drive up the cost of labor in this sector. It will require either that families pay more money out of pocket, or the federal and state Medicaid programs will pick up a larger tab. With the sector growing rapidly, it is uncertain what the ultimate costs will be. 

Which brings us back, as almost always, to the unions. In recent years, unions have successfully lobbied Democrat governors in states like Illinois and Connecticut to unionize home health care workers by executive action. The higher pay workers win is offset by the dues now owed to the union. The Labor Department's action this week takes a step toward nationalizing this phenomenon. 

A little known fact about union collective-bargaining agreements is that they can override federal rules and regulations. Federal regulations may require that employees who work more than 40 hours a week be paid time and a half, but a union contract can supercede that. "We know you are supposed to pay overtime," a union boss could tell an employer. "But, recognize our union and negotiate a contract and we can waive that mandate." 

By adding more regulations to the home health-care industry, the feds are facilitating the union organizing efforts. They are providing more rules that can be waived in a collective bargaining agreement. 

The once-proud union movement in America is rapidly changing. It once was the home of trained craftsmen and industrial workers. It is mostly now an affiliation of taxpayer-funded, government workers. The new Labor Department rules are a feature, not a bug, of the new labor movement in this country.   


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