Friday, Sept. 28, 2007

Child-care workers OK union effort

But opponents ask court to block process

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About 80 percent of Maryland’s home-based child-care providers have voted to give themselves the right to join a union, leaders with the Service Employees International Union said this week.

But state Circuit Court Judge Dexter M. Thompson Jr. in Cecil County issued a temporary restraining order Monday that could nullify the election. Thompson’s ruling stays the executive order by Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) that allowed the mail-in unionization election.

Thompson’s order followed the filing of a lawsuit against O’Malley by the Maryland State Family Child Care Association and others.

On Tuesday, the state attorney general’s office appealed the restraining order in the Circuit Court, requesting an immediate stay. And then on Wednesday, the state filed an appeal with the Court of Special Appeals. A hearing slated for Thursday in the Cecil County court is still scheduled, a court employee said.

The union election should not have been authorized by an executive order because, for one thing, it did not provide a way for opponents to address the situation, said Donna Fowler, director of public policy for the state child-care association.

In addition, O’Malley’s order did not deal with the certification process, she said.

‘‘It jumps from the election process to the negotiating process, leaving out an entire segment,” Fowler said.

O’Malley clearly had the authority to issue an executive order on this issue, said Sadie Crabtree, an SEIU spokeswoman in Washington, D.C. The union represents workers in education, government and community services.

‘‘We are confident that the lower court ruling will not stand,” Crabtree said.

In the Maryland election, 1,687 out of 5,818 eligible providers participated, she said. That was similar to the participation in other mail-ballot elections that the SEIU has conducted, Crabtree said.

Some 1,357 voted for the proposal and 330 against it, she said.

Under the proposal, only those home-based providers who receive reimbursement from the state through the Purchase of Care program will be eligible to join the SEIU’s Kids First union, Crabtree said.

All 5,818 providers in Maryland will be eligible to join, she said. All told, there are 10,560 registered child-care providers in Maryland, according to a state report in March.

‘‘It wouldn’t affect child-care centers, even those that are reimbursed through the state program,” Crabtree said.

‘‘However, in other states where home-based child-care providers have formed unions, the improvements they’ve made in child care through their union contracts have raised standards for the entire industry and resulted in better funding for child-care centers, too,” she said.

Unionized child-care workers would be better able to negotiate with the state for quicker reimbursements, receive more training opportunities and gain access to affordable health insurance, said Madie Green, a home-based provider in District Heights who worked on the unionization campaign.

‘‘This is all about improving child care for the children,” Green said.

Payments from the Maryland Department of Education, which pays providers to care for children of low-income families, take a long time to get processed and fail to come in some cases, Green said. About 3,000 licensed family child-care providers in Maryland have left the industry since 1994, according to the SEIU.

The pay for child-care employees ‘‘generally is very low,” and benefits are ‘‘minimal” for most workers, according to a U.S. Department of Labor report. The median hourly pay of child-care employees in Maryland was $9.74 in 2006, about 58 percent of the median hourly wage of all occupations in the state, which was $16.74, according to federal figures.

The legal action by the state child-care association is unfortunate, Green said. She said she hoped the situation is worked out.

‘‘We need to work hard to come together and sit down and do what is in the best interest of children,” Green said.

Costs unlikely to rise,organizer says

Unionizing workers shouldn’t drive up costs for parents, because providers control those costs, Green said. Getting more providers to remain in the industry will help increase competition, which, in turn, should eventually lower rates, she said.

Bills on the issue were reviewed by the General Assembly and did not get out of committees this year. A report prepared by the state Department of Legislative Services on the matter called the unionization impact on child-care providers that accept state subsidies ‘‘meaningful” because they ‘‘may see an increase in rates paid or other benefits as a result of representation by a provider organization.”

Providers have had a voice during the last two Maryland legislative sessions when many opposed the matter, which also did not pass in 2006, Fowler said.

Since 2005, 10 other states have given providers the right to form a union, and Illinois, Oregon and Washington have approved union contracts, according to the SEIU. Ballots in the Maryland election were counted by members of the American Arbitration Association.