Merced County officials negotiating offer to home care providers

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comSeptember 10, 2013 

Merced County officials recently made an offer to the county’s home care providers after seven months of wage-and-contract negotiations, but the workers’ union said the offer isn’t what they hoped for.

The county offered a one-time credit of $275,000 to be put toward workers’ health care plans, according to Matthew Maldonado, assistant organizing and field services director with the United Domestic Workers union. The UDW represents the county’s In-Home Supportive Services providers.

Maldonado said the offer doesn’t benefit all home care workers in Merced County because only 494 providers out of 1,900 are enrolled in health care benefits.

To be eligible for health insurance, caregivers must work 85hours per month for three consecutive months.

“We’re going back to the table at this point,” Maldonado said. “There’s absolutely no way we would accept an offer that supports only 424 workers out of nearly 2,000 workers.”

“We represent all the workers in the county, not just the ones on the health care plan,” he added. “By offering one-time funding, they’re saying we don’t really want to commit to this program long-term.”

Jim Brown, county executive officer, said the county is trying to help the workers who are required to enroll in individual health care plans under the Affordable Care Act.

“They’re required to get health insurance after January1, so we’re trying to help them by crediting the $275,000 toward health care,” Brown said. “We’re trying to find a way to help them implement a mandate they’re required to do.”

Union representatives said the workers want an hourly wage increase of 80cents per hour. Providers currently make $9per hour, and haven’t had a raise since 2008.

Brown said putting the $275,000 credit toward a wage increase would require approval from the state. If approved, the county would still be responsible for paying $446,000 for provider wage and payroll benefits. If the increase is not approved by the state, the county’s cost would be about $914,000per year.

Brown said the county’s contribution would be ongoing under a wage increase, so the one-time funding of $275,000 would not cover the continued costs.

Maldonado said the county would be reimbursed for those costs through state and federal funding. “If they were able to put the money into wage increases, the county could get matched with federal dollars,” he said. “I think the reality is, the county is not using the money wisely. This can help bring in a lot of money to be spent locally.”

Union representatives said an investment of 80cents per hour in wages for caregivers would generate about $2million in increased economic activity for Merced County, based on their calculations.

Several providers spoke in support of the program during a Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday.

“You made an offer; it’s nice,” said home care provider Mary Lemos. “But it doesn’t meet all the providers’ needs. We’re asking that all the providers get a fair share.”

Union representatives pointed out the county’s decision to hire an outside law firm to handle negotiations, costing about $100,000 for the fiscal year 2013-14.

Brown said the county uses the law firm – Liebert Cassidy Whitmore – to handle all labor negotiations, not just for the home care workers, and to offer advice on other personnel issues. The firm has offices in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

“It’s a best practice to use an outside negotiating firm, especially with all the changes in labor laws,” Brown said.

Brown said county employees have suffered pay cuts in a tough economic climate, and the county hasn’t been able to afford a wage increase to its employees.

“Our own employees still have a 5percent reduction, and the budget times we’re in, we can’t afford negotiate an increase for our own employees,” Brown said.

Negotiations between the union and the county began in February. After eight meetings, including one on Monday, officials said they are pleased to see some progress being made.

“We’re at a point where the county finally put something on the table, so we can start at that point,” Maldonado said. “It’s a lot farther than we were two days ago.”

Sun-Star staff writer Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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