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Decision on Public-Private Union Fees

By Michael E. Fiffik, Esquire

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday struck down a regulatory scheme that required home-care providers for Medicaid recipients to pay fees to a union, but declined to overturn precedent allowing public sector unions to collect fees from nonunion workers. The decision has implications for other “partial-public” employees such as day care workers whose businesses are paid with state-funded child-care vouchers given to parents who hold low-wage jobs and receive public assistance.

In 2009, Gov. Pat Quinn (D-Illinois) signed an executive order that authorized the state to recognize a union for personal assistant (PA) home-care providers, even though they are not actually public employees. Most home-care providers do not work for the state but receive a subsidy through Medicaid to provide care for someone that is disabled, which in many cases is a family member.

Pam Harris, a mother in northern Illinois, takes care of her son with severe intellectual and developmental disabilities and was forced into a union by Quinn’s order. Harris declined the offer to join the union and then filed a lawsuit in 2010 to avoid being forced to pay the union “agency fees” despite her decision to not join the union.

In a 5-4 ruling in the case of Harris v. Quinn, the high court found in favor of Ms. Harris’ challenge to the Illinois law. The contested regulations considered home health workers “public employees” for union-organizing purposes and required them to pay “agency fees” to a union for representing their interests in front of state agencies — even those workers who were not members of the union and not actually employees of the state for any other purpose.

Despite finding against the Illinois regulatory scheme, the high court’s majority stopped short of overturning precedent set in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. In that 1977 decision, the Supreme Court had allowed public employers to require all employees — both union and nonunion workers — to pay union fees, so long as workers were not forced to pay a portion of the fees that covers ideological activities.

The court makes clear that individuals not fully employed by the state (“partial-public”) cannot be forced to pay agency fees. Now states must review their employee complements to see who, if anyone, would be considered a quasi-state employee or something less than a ‘full-fledged’ state employee, as they cannot be forced to pay agency fees or dues. Monday’s ruling is also likely to spell more lawsuits contesting mandatory public-sector union fees, in part because it appears to lend judicial backing to so-called right-to-work laws, which generally prohibit forcing nonunion workers to pay union fees and which have been passed or proposed in multiple states.


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