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Supreme Court Decision Bad News for Seniors Who Depend on Home Health Care Providers

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.

SAME Act Provides Social Security Equity for Same-Sex Couples and their Families

One year ago today, the Supreme Court issued its landmark Windsor ruling in the Defense of Marriage Act providing benefits to legally married same-sex married couples.  Since then, federal agencies such as the Social Security Administration have been working to define benefits eligibility for millions of Americans.

Since the Windsor ruling, LGBT couples in 22 states and the District of Columbia have become fully eligible to receive Social Security benefits.  But that’s not true for the same sex couples who live in the remaining 28 states that do not recognize their marriages.  Unless Congress or the courts intervene, Social Security claims filed by LGBT couples who reside in the “non-recognition” states will -- in effect -- be denied.  That’s why the National Committee is proud to join a coalition of advocates today in announcing our support of the Social Security and Marriage Equality (SAME) Act.  The legislation introduced by Senators Patty Murray(D-WA) and Mark Udall(D-CO) and Representatives Ron Kind(D-WI), Ileana Ros-Lehtinen(R-FL), Allyson Schwartz(D-PA) and Elizabeth Esty(D-CT) extends full Social Security benefits to legally married same-sex couples, regardless of where they live.   

“Unless Congress or the courts intervene, Social Security claims filed by LGBT couples who reside in the “non-recognition” states will -- in effect -- be denied. LGBT families should not be forced to wait any longer. Justice delayed for LGBT families who live in states that do not recognize same sex marriage is justice denied. It is time for Congress to pass legislation that would make all couples and their children fully eligible to receive Social Security benefits regardless of where they live and who they love.”...Max Richtman, NCPSSM President/CEO

To help LGBT families navigate the confusion about their Social Security benefit eligibility, in October of 2013 the National Committee Foundation launched the “Know Your Rights” campaign nationwide.  It’s the first outreach program of its kind and a model for a national education campaign potentially reaching millions of LGBT Americans coast to coast.  

Social Security News

There is a lot of news coming from the Social Security Administration today.  First, SSA has published new instructions that allow the agency to process more claims for same-sex couples who qualify for Social Security benefits. 

“This latest policy development lets the agency recognize some non-marital legal relationships as marriages for determining entitlement to benefits. These instructions also allow Social Security to begin processing many claims in states that do not recognize same-sex marriages or non-marital legal relationships.  We have consulted with the Department of Justice and determined that the Social Security Act requires the agency to follow state law in Social Security cases. The new policy also addresses Supplemental Security Income claims based on same-sex relationships. Your same-sex marriage may affect your SSI eligibility or payment amount.

If you are in, or are a surviving spouse of, a same-sex marriage or non-marital legal same-sex relationship, we encourage you to apply right away for benefits.”

The SSA website has more details including this Fact Sheet.

Also, today President Obama announced plans to nominate current Acting SSA Commissioner, Carolyn Colvin, to serve as the Commissioner.  Colvin has served in an “acting” capacity for more than a year so it’s encouraging to see that critical position at SSA finally filled.  In addition to being a former NCPSSM Board of Trustee Member, the nominee has filled numerous roles at the SSA going back to 1994.  She has also served as the Director of the Department of Health and Human Services for both D.C. and Montgomery County. 

More Retirees – Fewer Social Security Offices to Help

The Social Security Administration’s budget has been under assault for years. Today the Senate Special Committee on Aging will examine the real-life impact these cuts are having on millions of seniors, people with disabilities, survivors and their families:

“The hearing, the culmination of a bipartisan committee staff investigation into service reductions at the Social Security Administration (SSA), comes at a time when baby boomers are filing record numbers of retirement, disability and survivor claims with the agency.  Despite the rising demand, the SSA is currently in the midst of the largest five-year decline in field offices in its 79-year history.  Budget cuts have, in part, led the agency to close 64 field offices and 533 temporary mobile offices since 2010.  The SSA has also shed some 11,000 workers over the last three years and continues to reduce or eliminate a variety of in-person services while trying to shift seniors and others online to conduct their business.”

According to the New York Times:

 “The field offices served over 43 million people last year. About 10 percent of the visitors filed for benefits, and 30 percent were seeking new or replacement Social Security cards.

... Nancy A. Berryhill, a deputy commissioner at the agency, said its budget and work force had not kept pace with what she described as “a staggering 27 percent increase” in claims for retirement benefits, to 3.3 million last year, from 2.6 million in 2007.

Social Security encourages consumers to use the Internet to do business with the agency. In 2013, Ms. Berryhill said, ‘we received nearly half of all Social Security retirement and disability applications online, and the percentage of people who choose to file online continues to grow.’”

Michael Hiltzik at the Los Angeles Times correctly points out the problem with this shift to online services:

But is that an adequate substitute? No way. For one thing, you have to know that your statement is available via the Internet, you have to know where to find it, and you have to be able to navigate a registration procedure that is not all that user-friendly -- especially for someone not familiar with navigating the Web, and double-especially for someone without easy access to a computer. Despite a claim that we all live in the digital world today, those are not small groups.

Importantly, the Social Security Administration has made no discernible effort to proactively advise Americans that the paper statements are a thing of the past. In other words, what was once its most effective outreach to millions of people has disappeared without a trace, or a single word of warning.

Social Security says that if you have problems accessing the online service, you can get help at a Social Security office. Of course, those offices, which used to be open until 4 p.m., are now open only till 3:30. Starting in mid-November, they'll only be open till 3. And starting Jan. 2, they'll be closing at noon Wednesdays.

"There's already an enormous amount of unhappiness for people who walk to their Social Security office and find a sign saying, 'We closed at 3:30,'" says Webster Phillips, a former Social Security associate commissioner who now works with the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.”

In testimony submitted to the Senate Aging Committee, NCPSSM President/CEO Max Richtman says:

“...the National Committee believes any individual who has paid Social Security taxes has the right to face-to-face service within a reasonable distance of their home.

The National Committee also is concerned that seniors and low-income individuals who are accustomed to conducting business on a face-to-face basis will suffer undue hardship when faced with the need for a benefit verification letter or SSN printout.  Many in this population lack access to and are not familiar with computers and printers.  I am also concerned that shifting this administrative burden to SSA call centers will only increase the current average wait time of 26 minutes.” 

While some Members of Congress appear quick to blame the Social Security Administration for these closures, as if they’ve happened in a vacuum, others have been warning years of budget cuts to the SSA -- happening at the same time service needs are increasing --  would ultimately hurt millions of Americans who rely on the Social Security benefits they've worked a lifetime to earn:

Representative Xavier Becerra of California, the senior Democrat on the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security, has repeatedly expressed concerns about the agency’s operating budget, which was $11 billion in 2013, about 4 percent less than in 2010. ‘No one should be surprised that service hours have been reduced, wait times have increased and local offices have closed,’ Mr. Becerra said.”


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