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Day-care providers face hurdles after initial win

Family day-care providers, following an impressive legal victory last month, still face considerable hurdles in their attempt to improve their working conditions by being declared state employees, with the right to join a union. On March 23, the State Labor Relations Board approved a request that 1300 people, who operate small day-care centers in their homes, be treated as Rhode Island state workers, rather than as independent contractors.

Further, in its 4-to-3 vote, the labor board indicated it will allow an election in which day-care operators vote whether to be represented by District 1199 of the New England Health Care Employees Union, an arm of the big Service Employees International Union. These decisions mark a giant step for the day-care providers, mostly women and many of Hispanic background. Because of the long hours they work, many providers contend that their effective pay is less than $3 an hour.

For years, the Rhode Island providers have struggled to increase their pay and benefits. Theoretically, being declared state workers opens the way to fringe benefits, such as health coverage and pensions, as well as better wages.

But critical steps remain.

The administration of Governor Donald L. Carcieri seems inclined to appeal the labor board’s decision to Superior Court, although officials say this will depend on the terms of the board’s written opinion, due April 6.

Labor law is murky about defining who is an employee. The union contends an array of regulations gives the state so much control over providers’ work lives that they are, in effect, state employees. The Carcieri administration says the opposite: providers have so much flexibility that they remain independent businesspersons. A second hurdle is that although the union says 900 workers have signed cards requesting union representation, the operators still have to vote about whether they actually want representation by District 1199.

The potential bargaining unit of 1300 providers is a complicated one. Many providers in Providence and Pawtucket are Hispanic and take state-subsidized children. Suburban providers tend to serve higher-income families with fewer state-supported children. So these groups may approach the union/state worker issue from different perspectives, which could influence their decision of whether to designate District 1199 as their official representative.

Finally, a new union will have to hash out an initial labor contract with the state.

Carcieri spokesman Jeff Neal says that the governor worries about the growing costs of subsidized day-care — which has allowed thousands of parents to leave welfare for full-time jobs. The program now costs more than $82 million a year. "The governor is concerned what effect this decision would have on the state budget and on the [day-care] program if it were to stand," Neal says, adding that at the very least, implementing the decision could cost the state $8 million to $10 million a year.

Ironically, Carcieri’s attempts to cut state spending led some providers to seek union representation. Last year, Carcieri tried to freeze a scheduled hike in rates paid to the home providers who care for 3220 children eligible for state subsidies. This year, he’s proposed eliminating relatively higher income families, dropping 925 children.

Joe Simoes, head organizer for District 1199, said the union is awaiting the formal, written decision, but that that he hopes that it will provide for elections within the next two months. Simoes says Carcieri should respect the labor board’s decision and let the providers decide whether to unionize, asking: "Why fight a group of women having a democratic right to chose whether or not to have a union?"

Issue Date: April 2 - 8, 2004
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