Home care initiative wins voter approval

By Rebecca Cook

Associated Press

SEATTLE – Washington state home care workers will have new rules and perhaps a new union, after voters today passed an initiative to regulate at-home care.

Initiative 775 on today’s ballots will establish minimum standards for workers who take care of elderly and disabled clients at home, and will let those workers unionize to get better pay.

I-775 was winning with 65 percent of the vote, with about a quarter of the votes counted.

“Any little bit of help we can get is needed,” said Lillian Lathrum of Bothell, who takes care of her disabled husband at home. She voted for the initiative.

The state pays independent home care workers $7.68 an hour. Elderly and disabled people hire them, often through classifieds ads, to do work ranging from light housekeeping to helping clients bathe and use the bathroom.

I-775 will create a nine-member Home Care Quality Authority appointed by the governor. The board will establish minimum qualifications, provide training, recruit workers, and maintain a referral list for clients.

The workers may unionize and bargain with the authority for wages and benefits. Union groups contributed 99 percent of the more than $1 million raised by the I-775 campaign.

Advocates for the disabled are concerned the initiative will give too much power to the unions and the workers, and not enough to the disabled and elderly clients.

Although the initiative bans strikes and guarantees employers the right to hire and fire their own helpers, critics fear unionization could lead to elderly and disabled people left without care or stuck with caretakers they don’t like.

Gov. Gary Locke at first opposed the initiative, saying it could make the state vulnerable to more lawsuits. But he changed his mind and gave I-775 his support after initiative sponsors assured him they would work with lawmakers and the attorney general’s office to revise the liability section of the measure.

The initiative will cost about $3.6 million next year, and $6.8 million for the 2003-2005 budget cycle. That’s just for setting up the board and registering, recruiting and training workers.

If the unionized workers, as expected, demand a better wage, the initiative would cost a lot more. The Senate Ways and Means Committee staff said each additional dollar in wages would cost the state $38 million per year.

The pay increase would have to be approved by the Legislature, which is already grappling with a possible budget shortfall of $1 billion.

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