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OR Home-Care Workers Ratify "Historic" Contract With State

PHOTO: Health insurance a huge issue.
PHOTO: Health insurance a huge issue.
July 30, 2012

MEDFORD, Ore. - More than 98 percent of Oregon home-care workers have voted to ratify their new union contract with the state. And for the first time, the contract covers about 7,500 caregivers who work with people with mental-health issues and developmental disabilities.

Medford caregiver Rebecca Sandoval, who was the bargaining unit chair for Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 503, says the workers agreed to a pay freeze. In exchange, the state kept the workers' health-insurance program unchanged. The state had proposed doubling the number of hours that caregivers have to work to qualify for state-paid health insurance - and also wanted workers to share their premium costs, says Sandoval.

"We were afraid that since home-care workers make so little money - we make $10.20 an hour - that if there were a premium-share, people would just drop the insurance because they couldn't afford it."

They had been bargaining since February 2011. Sandoval says state-paid health insurance is the benefit that often keeps people in a field that is seriously understaffed.

A home-care job is rarely a standard work week, she explains, and the nature of the work means caregivers can't just find more clients when they need more income. In January, Oregon cut home-care clients' hours of service by 10 percent, which also has meant fewer work hours for caregivers, Sandoval adds.

"The clients and the home-care workers - our needs and our concerns are the same, they're the exact same. In fact, when their hours got cut, it's probably safe to say that there are home-care workers who basically are working for less an hour, because those needs don't change. We always fight for our clients."

The new contract covers a total of more than 18,000 home-care workers, all SEIU Local 503 members. Sandoval says the union considers the new contract historic, because Oregon is the first state where workers have united from multiple fields that all allow people to live independently. They will start bargaining for the next contract in about six months.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - OR