Lawyers representing Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf's office say it was a "mistake" that a mandatory orientation program for state-funded home caregivers required those workers to sit through a meeting with officials from a union-funded and -run group.
In a court filing Friday, the governor formally suspended the orientation program, shortly before a nonprofit group challenging the governor's actions was to have legally deposed top officials in the governor's office.
The governor's critics said the home care workers were being treated like "pawns" in a political game. "Gov. Wolf should be protecting our clients' working relationship, not trying to use it to reward his union allies. We look forward to putting a permanent end to Wolf's home care unionization plans at the state Supreme Court later this year," said David Osborne, president and general counsel for the Fairness Center.
Wolf's backtracking is the latest twist in a long-running effort by the governor to help unionize the workers, who accept subsidies under the state's Direct Care Worker program to help take care of incapacitated people. State law says that the workers, most of whom work in their homes and take care of family members, are not public employees and therefore not eligible to collectively bargain with the state. However, in 2015, Wolf issued an executive order that created a "direct care worker representative" for the workers, a position that could be filled by a union.
A group called United Home Care Workers, a joint entity created by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Service Employees International Union, won an election last year to be the representative, although only 13 percent of workers eligible to vote actually did. AFSCME and SEIU were major supporters of Wolf's election bid. The Fairness Center, a nonprofit free-market group, and the Pennsylvania Home Care Association, a business trade group, filed suit to block Wolf's executive order and a state court issued an injunction last year blocking the state from implementing it. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is set to hear an appeal in the case in late November.
After the injunction, Wolf entered into a contract with an SEIU-created nonprofit group called the Training Education Fund to require the workers to undergo a mandatory training program. The state would fund the program to the tune of $1.25 million. Part of the contract would have required the workers to attend a meeting with the direct care representatives, which opponents said would violate the injunction. The governor's office agreed.
"The language that's in the contract is there purely as a mistake and we've amended that," Sean Concannon, an attorney for the governor's office, told a state court during an Aug. 30 deposition. "That, of course, would violate the injunction. Absolutely crystal clear on that. We don't dispute that at all."
Concannon was less clear on how that provision managed to end up in the contract. "Unfortunately, I think this was a problem in version control, but it ended up in the final contract," he told the court.
The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, which manages the Direct Care Workers program, declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation.