In a case from Illinois that may not reach outside that state, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Pamela Harris, whose child’s disabilities required that he have around-the-clock care. She became his home health worker and objected to having to pay union dues that she thought reduced the amount of money she had to care for her child.
Public employee unions had feared that the Supreme Court would use the case to allow all public employees to refuse to pay dues. But the court didn’t go that far. Full-fledged public employees, such as teachers, still will be required to pay dues to unions that represent them, even if they don’t join the union.
The decision, Harris v. Quinn, still is a blow to SEIU Healthcare, organized by the Service Employees International Union. It has 93,000 members, more than a quarter of whom are in-home care workers from Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and Kansas who pay millions in union dues. The state uses Medicaid funds to pay many of these workers as an alternative to having the disabled placed in institutional settings such as nursing homes.
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who had supported the pro-union position, said that the home health workers were paid more because of their unionization.
She said, "Illinois saves over $600 million a year providing services in the home where they have independence and autonomy that they wouldn't have if they were institutionalized."
Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Foundation, said in a statement, “We applaud these home-care providers' effort to convince the Supreme Court to strike down this constitutionally dubious scheme, thus freeing thousands of home-care providers from unwanted union control."
Judge Samuel Alito, writing for the court, said the state "denies personal assistants most of the rights and benefits enjoyed by full-fledged state workers" and "does not assume responsibility for actions taken by personal assistants during the course of their employment. The governing statute explicitly disclaims 'vicarious liability in tort.' So if a personal assistant steals from a customer, neglects a customer, or abuses a customer, the state washes its hands.
"Illinois deems personal assistants to be state employees for one purpose only, collective bargaining."
The decision specifically leaves the intact the Abood case under which state employees who choose not to join a public-sector union may have to pay an agency fee to support union work related to the collective-bargaining process.
Parth Shah, St. Louis Public Radio news intern, contributed to this story. William H. Freivogel, a lawyer, heads the School of Journalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. He is a regular member of the legal panel for St. Louis on the Air.