Care providers make case for higher wages

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comApril 29, 2013 

A handful of In-Home Supportive Services providers appealed to the county supervisors last week, asking for their support amid ongoing union negotiations.

"We haven't had a raise since 2008," said Carmelita Wallace, a home-care provider making $9 per hour. "And if you hadn't had a raise in five years, just think about that, and how that would make you feel."

Wallace, a Winton resident, was one of four home-care providers to speak during the public comments session at a board meeting this week.

The home-care workers provide services such as housecleaning, meal preparation and grocery shopping to the county's elderly, disabled and blind.

"By taking care of them in their homes, they get to stay in the community; they get to continue making payments on their homes; they get to buy groceries, and basically feel like a human being," Wallace said.

Mike Loza, regional coordinator with the United Domestic Workers office in Merced, said federal funding received this year -- called Community First Choice Option -- reduced the county's contribution to the program by 2.1 percent.

Before the 2.1 percent decrease, Loza said, the county paid 17.5 percent of the cost of the IHSS program, which includes wages and benefits.

"We feel that in this savings alone, that's money the county can use to subsidize a livable wage increase for our home-care providers," Loza said. "We think it's time for providers to be given a livable wage."

Jim Brown, county executive officer, said that funding is not ongoing and won't be available next year because of new legislation that shifts bargaining agreements to the state.

Avoiding risk

"We have to be very careful to not put the county at risk for an increased cost for a responsibility that's being shifted to state," Brown said. "Beginning next fiscal year, there would be no increased funding available to the county for the increased costs."

Once the collective bargaining shifts to the state in 2014, Merced County would pay the state a fixed amount for the IHSS program -- about $4 million with a 3.5 percent increase each year.

Loza said the 2,200 home-care providers in the county don't receive the same benefits as other union members. "Our providers don't receive holiday pay, overtime or a pension. It's a hardship for us when the county puts us in the same category as other unions and their members."

During the meeting, Wallace told the board that providers don't get reimbursed for gas when they take clients to doctor appointments or the store.

"A lot of stuff we don't get accounted for, but we still do." Wallace said. "If you were working and did things on your own time, I don't know if you'd be OK with it either."

Brown acknowledged the importance of the program, but said there's no funding coming to the county next year to offset any additional costs.

"I understand it's a very valuable service, but part of this is there's a lot of uncertainty right now regarding the program and the overall funding," he said.

While county officials and union representatives said they couldn't discuss the ongoing contract negotiations, they've had five meetings since February.

A contract negotiated by the union in January 2008 increased wages to $9 an hour and provided health benefits to those working 85 or more hours a month. The current contract expires at the end of May.

"We would hope that we're able to successfully reach an agreement before the expiration of that contract," Brown said.

Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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