Union drive for home care aides' overtime pay could backfire in Calif.

SACRAMENTO — A union effort to increase salaries for workers caring for the country's elderly and disabled threatens to backfire in California, where Gov. Jerry Brown wants to limit their hours.

A change in federal rules set for next year entitles nearly 2 million home aides nationwide to overtime pay. But Brown, in an effort to keep a lid on costs, has proposed a cap on the time they work in the state's taxpayer-funded home care program for low-income Californians.

The proposal, part of the governor's latest budget plan, could particularly affect disabled people who receive more than 40 hours of assistance a week. Instead of relying on a single caregiver — in many cases a family member — they would be likely to need additional aides.

Many of the caregivers perform such tasks such as bathing, clothing and feeding.

"Workers are not interchangeable," said Deborah Doctor, a lobbyist for the advocacy group Disability Rights California. "There are human relationships."

She said more disabled people could be institutionalized under Brown's proposal — the outcome that the home care program was created to avoid.

In addition, caregivers accustomed to working more than 40 hours a week would have their incomes reduced if lawmakers approve the governor's plan.

Rosita Whittaker of Menifee, Calif., who cares for her disabled 21-year-old daughter, Veronica, said Brown's proposal would "totally blow both our lives apart."

She is paid $11.50 an hour for 260 hours a month, a total of $2,990. Brown's proposal would slash that to $1,840, and Whittaker said she wouldn't be able to afford her mortgage.

Getting an outside job and bringing in another caregiver to help Veronica is out of the question, Whittaker said.

"She would be totally traumatized," she said.

Veronica, who has been partly paralyzed and developmentally disabled since she was a toddler, is one of roughly 37,500 people who receive more than 160 hours of assistance a month from a single caregiver, according to state statistics.

That's more than 8% of the 453,000 people expected to benefit from California's In-Home Supportive Services program in the next budget year, which starts July 1.

Public outcries over changes in social services were common during California's budget crises, and activists hoped those would be a thing of the past as state finances rebounded. Brown has already agreed to restore some funding to welfare and healthcare programs.

But he does not want to commit to paying overtime for home aides, said H.D. Palmer, spokesman for the governor's Department of Finance.

Even though state revenue has been strong lately, there's no reason to expect that to last forever, he said.

"How fair is it to promise funding for a program and pull it back several years later when the revenue evaporates?" he said.

Overtime could increase the annual cost of the $2-billion home aide program by $426 million, according to administration figures. Instead of allocating for the extra pay, Brown would reserve $153.9 million for a "backup system" that would help pair aides with those who need them when their primary caregivers use up their hours.

Brown will spend the next several months negotiating a final spending plan with lawmakers.

Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) expressed skepticism about Brown's proposal, saying in a statement that he's "very concerned about impairing the quality of care" and "maintaining fairness for workers who provide that care."

Advocates for the disabled said they warned labor leaders that new overtime rules could hurt participants in California's program. Some said unions stand to gain because if Brown's proposal passes, the state will need more caregivers, increasing their unions' ranks.

"You're getting more union dues for the union, which is what the union is always interested in — filling their coffers," said Connie Arnold, an Elk Grove resident and disability rights advocate who receives help from In-Home Supportive Services.

Nearly two-thirds of the caregivers in California are represented by the politically powerful Service Employees International Union. Laphonza Butler, president of the union's state council, said unions won't receive much in new dues, and she expressed no regrets about pushing for the overtime.

"Work is work," she said. "Whether you work in somebody's home, whether you work in a steel mill, whether you work in a hospital, work is work."

Butler said the governor's proposal would be damaging to the female workers who make up the majority of home aides.

"Our state has always been leaders on issues of equity," Butler said. "This proposal is not Californian."

Her union helped organize a protest against Brown's proposal at the Capitol last week.

Protester Carol Iman, 61, of Sierra County said she is concerned about how the governor's proposal would affect her family. She and her husband took out a loan to build a garage with a second-floor apartment where her developmentally disabled brother Bobby, 68, lives.

Bobby has always been cared for by family members, Iman said.

"I've never let a stranger take care of my brother," she said. "It would be humiliating for him."

chris.megerian@latimes.com

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