While the headlines today will likely focus on the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision, seniors should also be paying close attention to the first ruling issued by the Court this morning. Today’s Supreme Court ruling in Harris v. Quinn could have devastating effects on America’s home health system by driving down already low wages and reducing the basic rights of workers in one of our nation’s fastest growing job sectors – home health services.

There are nearly 2 million home health care providers in the United States, and as our nation ages it is expected that more than 5 million providers will be needed in the next five years. Even though these workers are vital to our economy, providing services that allow seniors and people with disabilities to live at home and avoid the costs of institutionalization, these workers are usually paid poverty-level wages with no benefits. 

“America needs a stable, qualified home care workforce to meet the growing need for home care in our nation; however, today’s Supreme Court ruling stands in the way of making that goal a reality.  This ruling could drive down wages, which are already less than poverty level for many home care workers, while also keeping them isolated in their jobs with little job security. Ultimately, it’s America’s families which suffer when we compromise the access and quality of home care to seniors, people with disabilities and children.  This ruling takes us backwards rather than making progress toward the goal of building a vibrant and growing home care workforce ensuring that seniors and people with disabilities can live in dignity in their own homes.”...Max Richtman, NCPSSM President/CEO

“Today’s Supreme Court decision does not dampen the resolve of home care workers and child care providers to come together to have a strong voice for good jobs and to give care to millions of seniors, people with disabilities and children,” said AFSCME President Lee Saunders. The ruling places at risk a system of consumer-directed home care that has proved successful in raising wages, providing affordable care and increasing training. The number of elderly Americans will increase dramatically in the coming years. Child care workers make it possible for working parents to support their families without the agony of trying to juggle their jobs and their kids. States need to build a stable, qualified workforce to meet the growing need for home care and child care – and having a strong union for care providers is the approach that has proven most effective."...AFSME Statement

The Center for American Progress provides this background on how this case made to the Court in the first place:

Harris arises from a group of home-based aides for Medicaid patients in Illinois, a majority of whom voted to unionize. When a majority of a workforce, but not every single worker, votes to be represented by a union, the union is still required to represent the interests of the non-union workers. That means all workers must be treated equally at the bargaining table — a union cannot entice workers into joining the union by bargaining for one set of wages for union members and another, lower set of wages for non-members.

By any reasonable objective measure, the union struck a very good deal for Illinois’ home health aides. Before the union negotiated a collective bargaining agreement, the aides’ wages were just $7.00 an hour. Now they are $11.65 an hour, and they are scheduled to increase to $13.00 per hour in December. Nevertheless, the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation (NRWLDF), an anti-union litigation shop, found a handful of home health aides who object to this arrangement. Those objectors are now the plaintiffs in Harris.

And the Nation provides this analysis: 

The ruling claws back on the real material gains that collective bargaining won for homecare workers. Outside of Illinois’s state program, workers in the sector typically earn around $20,000 per year and suffer tremendously stressful, often exploitative working conditions. Only last year did they officially become eligible for federal minimum wage and overtime rules, following a hard-fought campaign by domestic workers’ advocates to end the Labor Department’s longstanding exemption for homecare providers.

Illinois health aides, by contrast, made real progress after joining SEIU as direct employees of the state. Part of a national campaign to unionize the sector, the workers collectively bargained for higher wages and labor protections typical of union workers but long denied to other health aides, including health benefits and training.

The AFL-CIO had this reaction:

The extreme views of today’s Supreme Court aimed at home care workers aren’t just bad for unions – they’re bad for all workers and the middle class. But the attacks on the freedom of workers to come together are nothing new. They are part of an onslaught from anti-worker organizations hostile to raising wages or improving benefits for millions of people.  These attacks are a direct cause of an economy in which middle class families can’t get a break because their wages have stagnated and their incomes have declined.

Home care is one of the fastest growing industries. Its workers do backbreaking, thankless work, often for low wages. By forming a union these workers are helping to combat income inequality and the rise of low wage jobs, ensuring that these are good jobs with good benefits.

Make no mistake: the fate of workers cannot and will not be decided by one Supreme Court decision. The Court upheld the right of public employees to have strong unions and workers will vigorously build on that foundation.