SACRAMENTO — Arnold Arbiso, a quadriplegic living near Los Angeles, wanted to support the workers who bathe, dress and cook for him and other disabled Californians. So when they mobilized to join unions more than a decade ago, he used the knuckle on his little finger to dial the offices of state lawmakers and express his approval.
The 60-year-old is now having misgivings, fearing that union demands could harm the very people the workers are hired to help. He is caught in the middle of a pay dispute that has divided labor leaders and advocates for the disabled, who have long been allies in promoting California’s enormous and controversial home care program.
Unions are lobbying for a new federal rule that would require overtime pay for in-home caregivers, arguing that their members shouldn’t be paid less than other workers just because they are employed in people’s houses. But the costs would be enough to disrupt a government program used by 450,000 elderly and disabled Californians, activists and state officials say.
The overtime change was proposed by the U.S. Department of Labor and is under review by the White House. It is unclear when it would take effect if implemented.
Officials say overtime would cost California’s In-Home Supportive Services program $150 million more in state funds every year at a time when Gov. Jerry Brown is trying to keep a lid on spending. His administration is already preparing legislation that would limit overtime payouts, possibly by restricting how many hours the state’s nearly 360,000 caregivers may work.
Whatever the state ultimately does, the unions stand to win if the overtime policy is enacted. Limiting the hours each worker could log could increase unions’ ranks by thousands as more workers would be required to care for people who need more than eight hours of service each day.
The policy could also upend the lives of severely disabled Californians, whose aides are often family members who form close bonds with them after many years of working together.
The aid recipients may have to find additional workers, and caregivers may need to seek other jobs to replace lost wages if their hours are limited, advocates and others say.
The neediest recipients “would have to accept strangers into their homes to perform their most intimate tasks and coordinate which providers would perform which tasks on which days and which hours of the day,” wrote Diana Dooley, secretary of the California Health and Human Services Agency, in an April letter to federal officials.
Arbiso said granting overtime “looks good on paper, but in the real world, that’s not the way it’s going to work.” In the end, he said, “it will be a disaster.”
The dispute is the latest involving In-Home Supportive Services, which became a political lightning rod as the fastest-growing social service in California. The nearly 40-year-old program allows poor elderly and disabled residents to use taxpayer money to hire caregivers to help them with basic tasks. Almost 3 in 4 recipients choose family members.
Republicans and other critics of the program have viewed it as prone to fraud and a strain on California’s finances. After the state’s caseload more than doubled in a decade, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger dramatically slowed its growth with new eligibility restrictions, tighter controls on time sheets and limits on services performed by the aides.
The program also has fierce defenders. Advocates say it’s a cost-effective way to keep people out of more expensive nursing homes.
Laphonza Butler, president of the California council of the Service Employees International Union, said caregivers earn from $8 to $12.20 an hour and deserve extra pay for overtime. She said she’s confident an agreement can be reached on the issue.
“Equal protection under the law is a valuable thing for working families,” she said. “That’s something we should strive for.”
Mary Beth Maxwell, acting deputy administrator of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, said the country’s 1.8 million home aides have some of the lowest wages in the service industry.
“With the aging of the American population and increased demand for these services, we need to stabilize this workforce,” she said in a statement.
Deborah Doctor, a lobbyist for the advocacy group Disability Rights California, expressed doubt that Sacramento would fund any overtime. Brown recently secured a legal settlement allowing him to reduce spending on home care, and extra wages would almost completely undo those savings.
“If money could be found to pay for this overtime, we would be very happy to support it,” Doctor said. “We don’t think the overtime should be paid at the expense of the consumers.”