Rauner seeks to dismantle cost-saving homecare programs

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Photo by Joe Gallo

Home health care aide Maria Ortiz was featured in a 2011 Reporter story on withheld paychecks at local nonprofit ASI. (File photo)

Anyone still unclear about who would be hurt by Gov. Bruce Rauner’s “turnaround agenda” should take a look at his approach in contract negotiations with the state’s lowest-paid workers.

Rauner has demanded a wage freeze in talks with two SEIU Healthcare Illinois bargaining units representing homecare workers serving seniors and people with disabilities.

That’s for homecare workers whose pay now ranges from $10 to $13 an hour.  These service providers make it possible for people to remain in their homes instead of nursing homes, saving the state money and dramatically increasing their clients’ freedom and autonomy.

Rauner has also demanded a rate freeze in contract negotiations with the mainly minority women who provide childcare in their homes through the state’s Child Care Assistance Program.  According to the union, many home childcare providers are making less than $5 an hour after expenses.

On top of that, Rauner wants to eliminate these workers’ health insurance.

“It seems like he does not have any respect for us or for the work we do,” said Tanya Moses, a homecare worker and SEIU activist.  “It’s like he does not think our work is important.”

Moses was in Springfield on Tuesday to testify before the state Senate’s human services committee, which approved three bills that would protect existing health insurance and training programs for homecare and childcare workers and raise homecare workers’ wages to $15 an hour.

Along with a legislative fix – which would have to survive an expected veto by the governor – the union continues to press the Rauner administration to negotiate a fair contract.  Homecare and childcare workers rallied and marched on April 1 as part of the Chicago Teachers Union’s Day of Action against austerity, and on Monday faith leaders from Arise Chicago called on Rauner to “work constructively through the established bargaining process to reach a resolution [on state workers’ contracts] rather than intensifying conflict.”

While stonewalling contract negotiations, Rauner also has proposed deep cuts to homecare and childcare programs.  Some cuts would actually increase costs to the state by forcing people into nursing homes or forcing low-income workers who need childcare to quit their jobs.  It’s clear that Rauner’s hostility to the programs reflects the fact that their workforces are unionized.

Last summer Rauner proposed administrative changes reducing eligibility for childcare and homecare.  Under an “emergency rule” issued June 30 – the same day SEIU’s contracts expired – the Illinois Department of Human Services reduced childcare eligibility from 185 percent of the federal poverty level to a shocking 50 percent, eliminating 90 percent of families in the program.  At the same time eligibility changes were proposed to homecare for seniors and people with disabilities that would have eliminated services for 34,000 people.

After the General Assembly sought to overturn these actions, Rauner eventually scaled them back.  But confusion over childcare eligibility – in addition to the smaller reduction Rauner did carry out – means 35,000 fewer children are enrolled this year compared to last year, with nearly $13 million less paid to providers, according to the union.  This has created hardships for childcare providers and the working families they serve.

Meanwhile, SEIU recently detailed a $235 million backlog in payment to agencies providing home services to seniors and people with disabilities.  It’s hard to track the results, but some agencies have closed and others are on the brink. Lutheran Social Services eliminated all of its homecare services. Thousands of clients have lost services.

“The crisis is here,” said Kaitlin DeCero of SEIU.  “The situation is dire. The agencies that are closing aren’t going to come back” when budget and contract issues are resolved.

And there’s more.  In his 2017 budget proposal Rauner has called for a $200 million cut in homecare services. He would accomplish this by funneling about 43,000 seniors who are now in the state’s community care program but not covered by Medicaid into a new program. The move would result in an average 43 percent reduction in services, according to a union analysis.

“That would pretty much relegate vulnerable seniors to nursing homes,” said Gerardo Cardenas of AARP Illinois.  The average cost for participants in the community care program is $10,430; the average cost for nursing home care is $52,000 a year, according to SEIU.

On Thursday, AARP and SEIU are expected to announce support for legislation that would protect the community care program and give current eligibility standards the force of law.  In a parallel measure, a Senate committee last month backed a significant expansion in eligibility for childcare subsidies.

Whether Democratic supermajorities can carry these measures over vetoes by the governor remains to be seen – particularly because one key vote would be that of State Rep. Ken Dunkin, and these are the issues over which he split with his party (and lost his primary last month).

As for Rauner, Tanya Moses says, “Someday he’s going to need homecare.”  I think she’s only partly joking when she adds, “I would love to be his provider.”

“I would take very good care of him, because that’s what I do,” she said. “But I would be sure to remind him of everything he has said and done to tear down this homecare system.”