County makes offers to homecare workers

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comApril 3, 2014 

— Wearing matching green shirts and begging the Board of Supervisors for higher wages, home-care workers of Merced County got their wish after more than a year of contract negotiations – but the offer was rejected by union representatives who said it wasn’t a fair deal.

Merced County officials last month offered the workers a 50-cent raise, but would discontinue their health care coverage – forcing caregivers to buy their own insurance plans. The county’s offer also included a one-time stipend of $275,000 for training, which is from a state refund the county received.

The home-care workers make $9 an hour and were asking county administrators for a dollar more.

The county paid 60 cents per hour toward health care plans of qualified workers, but that contribution would be eliminated by the offer. Health care is provided to those who work a minimum of 90 hours a month over a three-month period, said Merced County Human Resources Director Marci Barrera.

“The 50 cents was basically a redirection from health care to wages, and we would no longer provide health care for them,” Barrera said. “They would go to Covered California for coverage.”

Union representatives said the 50-cent raise isn’t enough for home-care workers to pay for their own health insurance.

“If you get 50 cents more, that doesn’t buy a health care plan,” said Matthew Maldonado, organizing field services director with the local United Domestic Workers of America. “The majority of folks wouldn’t be able to buy a real health care plan under Covered California or on their own.”

Maldonado said the roughly 2,000 workers in Merced County haven’t seen a raise in six years.

“To say that 50 cents is an increase is an insult. The county should be ashamed of themselves,” he said. “Try to go and live off $9.50 an hour, knowing that the 50 cents you’re getting had to go toward buying health care — real health care — not the watered-down plan the county offered.”

Barrera said the county has made at least two offers to the home-care workers since negotiations began Feb 21, 2013. The county has spent $29,105.10 on the yearlong negotiation process thus far.

“Our offer was like all negotiations – an attempt to reach an agreement,” Barrera said. “Negotiation is a lot of give-and-take, and we certainly made some movement from the last offer.”

Since the offer was rejected, Barrera said, the county will continue providing health care to about 424 workers. “We’re still providing it, and we have to be compliant with offering it based on the law,” Barrera said, noting the plans were changed recently to comply with the Affordable Care Act.

According to county management analyst Stephanie Dietz, the home-care providers program costs about $24.1 million for wages, health care, and payroll taxes. The state pays $19.2 million a year to cover wages and about $1.3 million for health care costs.

The county’s unreimbursed cost for the program is about $4.1 million, Dietz said, which is partially budgeted from the general fund.

The county receives $1.2 million in federal and state reimbursement for the program’s public authority administration, which links home-care providers to recipients. The administration’s budget is $1.5 million, Dietz said, which means the county pays about $300,000 from its general fund.

Andrea Vidales, a home-care worker for more than 30 years, was taking care of her 82-year-old client Thursday when she heard about the county’s latest offer. “I’m just stunned,” the 62-year-old said. “I don’t know why the county can’t take care of us. We spend our money in this county and vote for these people.”

Vidales, an Atwater resident, said she would have a hard time paying for her own health insurance. She works about 250 hours a month caring for three people in their 80s.

Juan Roybal, 82, of Atwater, a diabetic who undergoes dialysis three times a week, said he doesn’t know how he would survive without Vidales, his home-care provider.

“I’d be dead without the program,” he said. “I’m blind, my mobility is not very good, and I can’t walk more than 50 feet before I have to sit and rest.”

Vidales said she does everything for her patients, from taking them to doctor appointments to bathing them, cooking meals and helping pay bills. “They have a lot of trust in me,” she said. “There’s nothing I would not do for them.”

The next meeting between the county and the home-care workers union is set for April 16. Officials said the state could assume responsibility of the program’s wage contract, possibly as soon as Jan. 1.

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

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