By Paul Kersey -
In 2003 and 2009, governors Rod Blagojevich and Pat Quinn, respectively, issued executive orders to unionize parents who receive a modest Medicaid benefit to help pay for the cost of caring for their disabled children. Suburban Chicago mother Pam Harris has bravely taken this decision to the U.S. Supreme Court in what could be a landmark case, Harris v. Quinn.
As if unionizing these parents isn’t bad enough, now the state has threatened to “fire” some of them and replace them with state workers. One of these parents is Deborah Teixeira, the mother and at-home caregiver to her daughter Juliet.
Juliet suffered a severe brain injury in a car accident when she was 17 years old. She is now 37, and hasn’t known a life outside of her mother’s full-time care since the accident.
The government body controlling her modest benefit doesn’t seem to care.
Deborah said she was repeatedly harassed by state employees who accused her of gaming the system, and threatened to replace her with a state employee. And what of the union she is forced to pay dues to as a condition of receiving help from the state? When contacted, the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, did nothing to stop the state.
The idea of unionizing parents is crazy. So is making parents “clock in” to take care of their own kids; every parent knows caring for a child is a 24/7 job. But under the state’s caregivers program, Deborah and other parents are required to clock in and clock out to care for their kin to make sure the benefit check keeps coming in the mail. To do this, they must call a phone system managed by the state.
Where Deborah lives, the program she depends on to care for her child is run by the Department of Rehabilitation Services, or DORS. The agency decided to check up on her with all the care and discretion of a pit boss. She recounts:
“I received a phone call from a DORS employee [on] June 3. The first words spoken were, ‘I’m calling because there are serious errors in your time sheet.’ I felt a sense of panic because the security of our lives depends on my income and as such the will and judgment of one person, the person on the phone. I had a copy of the time sheet in question, which brought the pitch down a notch as the person on the other side of the phone could not dramatize the situation. She was surprised that I had a copy of my time sheet, a habit I carefully maintain.”
Deborah was told there were three “serious errors” on her time sheet. One day, she had accidentally clocked out 40 minutes late. “[The DORS employee] graciously elected to dismiss this charge out of the goodness of her heart,” Deborah said.
The second mistake was forgetting to clock out one day. Perhaps she was giving her daughter a shower or administering medicine necessary to pull Juliet out of one of her constant seizures. The third error turned out to be a mistake on the part of the DORS office.
Deborah was told that if she continued to mismanage her hours she would be “terminated” and replaced by a state employee. A week later, she got it in writing.
Unionizing parents was wrong; threatening to “fire” them even more so. Pam Harris, Deborah Teixeira and people like them across Illinois are parents taking care of their children, and deserve to be treated with the utmost respect from the state; not harassed by public employees for small errors in compliance with a ridiculous system.
Simply put, the stakes are high in Harris v. Quinn. The high court should unequivocally reject the state’s transformation of the most sacrificing parents into their own unionized “workers.”
Paul Kersey is Director of Labor at the Illinois Policy Institute