By Lisa Schencker - Contact Reporter Chicago Tribune
As many as 80,000 Illinois home health care workers will get a second shot at recovering $32 million in union fees, following the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark decision earlier this week in a case over payments to unions.
The Supreme Court on Thursday ordered the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals to reconsider its decision last year in a case involving whether the home health care workers, paid with Medicaid dollars, should be able to recoup money the state took out of their paychecks for "fair share" union fees between 2008 and 2014. Those "fair share" fees covered the costs of collective bargaining even though those workers were not union members.
The 7th Circuit last year upheld a lower court's decision that the 80,000 workers could not be certified as a class, partly because not all of them had objected to having part of their pay collected as union fees.
But on Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in a case involving Illinois state government worker Mark Janus that government workers can't be forced to contribute to unions that represent them in collective bargaining. The decision was called a blow to unions and a major victory for labor opponents. The home health care case is to be reconsidered in light of that decision.
The 80,000 workers were employed by individuals with disabilities participating in the state-administered Home Services Program, which helps pay for severely disabled individuals to be cared for at home, rather than in institutions. Many of the workers were relatives of the disabled individuals who were also their caretakers.
"The (Service Employees International Union) and Blagojevich and Quinn administrations seized $32 million from 80,000 home health care providers against their will, just took their money," said William Messenger, an attorney with the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, who represents the three home health care workers who brought the original case in 2010.
Those three workers prevailed at the Supreme Court, but then returned to lower courts to try to expand the ruling to the other 80,000 workers. "We're hoping this will eventually allow them to get that wrongfully seized money back," he said.
The three workers argue that the home health care workers shouldn't have had to object to paying "fair share" fees; it's enough that they never consented, they say.
It's a point that may carry new weight following the Janus decision. In the majority opinion in the Janus case, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that union fees cannot be deducted from employee paychecks "unless the employee affirmatively consents to pay."
But James Muhammad, spokesman for SEIU Healthcare Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Kansas, said in a statement Friday that it's "routine" for cases to be sent back to lower courts for reconsideration after major Supreme Court decisions. He expects the courts will reach the same decision as they did in the case before Janus.
"Right-wing extremists bent on silencing the voices of workers have been emboldened with the ruling for the plaintiff in Janus v. AFSCME, disallowing collection of fair share fees for collective bargaining work unions do on behalf of all workers," Muhammad said.
The union argued in court documents in 2016 that many of those 80,000 workers would likely have supported the union and agreed to pay the fees if they had been asked. Up until 2014, the state automatically deducted those fees from home health care workers' paychecks, regardless of whether they were union members.
The state stopped those automatic deductions after a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision that home care workers paid by the state are not full-fledged public employees.
Conservatives have celebrated the Janus decision as a win for workers, free speech and Gov. Bruce Rauner, who has long been a foe of organized labor.
Rauner spokeswoman Nicole Wilson declined to comment Friday. Rauner was named as a defendant in the home health care lawsuit, though he did not participate in the appeal at the 7th Circuit.