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A group of personal care attendants want state law changed so that they can seek union representation. Dozens of home health care workers and the clients that they take care of announced the drive during a press conference at Dunning Recreation Center in St. Paul on Wednesday. They are working with the Service Employees International Union on a campaign that could affect roughly 15,000 to 20,000 workers.

Home care workers seek state law change to allow unionization

Ziggy Norberg speaks at Wednesday's press conference

A group of personal care attendants want state law changed so that they can seek union representation. Dozens of home health care workers and the clients that they take care of announced the drive during a press conference at Dunning Recreation Center in St. Paul on Wednesday. They are working with the Service Employees International Union on a campaign that could affect roughly 15,000 to 20,000 workers.

“Being a home care worker is probably the hardest job I’ve ever had,” said Karen Urman, who is the primary care attendant for her 18-year-old son, Ziggy Norberg. He was born with spina bifida, a developmental disorder that affects the spinal cord and confines him to a wheelchair. “We deserve the same rights as all other workers to form a union.”

There are two ways in which personal care attendants are employed. They either work for a social service agency that connects them with clients, or they’re hired directly by the person requiring care. The former already have the right to unionize, but the latter do not. Both groups of workers are paid entirely through state Medicaid funds.

The organizing drive is similar to efforts in recent years to unionize day care providers in that neither group works directly for the state. Gov. Mark Dayton issued an executive order in November of last year calling for an election to determine whether more than 4,000 day care providers wanted union representation. But opponents of the plan sued in federal court and a judge ultimately ruled that Dayton had exceeded his executive authority in ordering the election.

There is a significant difference, however, with personal care attendants: their wages are set directly by the state. In the case of child care workers, they merely receive state subsidies for taking care of poor kids.

As part of the deal that resolved the state budget shutdown in 2011, personal care attendants saw their salaries cut by 1 percent. In addition, individuals who care for their relatives saw their pay cut by an additional 20 percent. Both changes were slated to go into effect in July, but implementation on the cut for relative provider care was delayed by one year.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the organizing drive comes after labor-friendly Democrats took over  control of the Legislature. “We’re definitely happy about the election results, but regardless we need a voice,” Urman said.

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