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Health Aides Fight to Recoup $32 Million From Big Labor

Supreme Court declared SEIU coercive fees scheme unconstitutional in 2014

Home health aide
Home health aide / AP

Home health aides in Illinois are fighting to recoup $32 million that was taken out of their paychecks in a coercive unionization scheme that the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional.

More than 80,000 home healthcare workers were forced to pay Service Employees International Union (SEIU) hundreds of dollars each year under a policy devised by the now-imprisoned Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Illinois declared that the aides, many of whom were caring for disabled relatives, were public employees since their compensation came through state Medicaid funds.

Pamela Harris, who provided care to a severely disabled son, sued the state and union arguing that the arrangement wrongfully deducted money from her Medicaid check. The Supreme Court ruled in her favor in Harris v. Quinn, declaring the arrangement unconstitutional in 2014.

"[Health aides] are much different from public employees," Justice Samuel Alito said in the 5-4 ruling. "Unlike full-fledged public employees, [aides] are almost entirely answerable to the customers and not to the State, do not enjoy most of the rights and benefits that inure to state employees, and are not indemnified by the State for claims against them arising from actions taken during the course of their employment."

The case has had a domino effect in the dozen states that treated home health aides as public employees despite the fact that the unions did not negotiate on their behalf, nor could they since Medicaid compensation is capped by the federal government.

Workers in Illinois stopped paying SEIU following the suit and now some are waging a class action lawsuit to make the union return deducted cash. Lawyers from the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, which argued Quinn v. Harris before the Supreme Court, have now taken the battle to federal appeals court. National Right to Work Foundation president Mark Mix said failing to return the money to the aides would set a dangerous precedent, incentivizing unions to continue pushing for forced dues collections.

"If SEIU bosses are not required to return the money they seized in violation of homecare providers’ First Amendment Rights, it will only encourage similar behavior from union officials eager to trample on the First Amendment to enrich themselves at the expense of tens of thousands of homecare providers," he said in a release.

SEIU, which did not return request for comment, has said that it should not be required to pay back the workers because not all workers opposed union representation. A district court judge ruled in June that individual plaintiffs could recoup several thousand dollars paid to the union beginning in 2008, but nixed the class action status filed on behalf of all the home health aides.

"The union provides compelling evidence that a substantial number of proposed class members did not object to paying the fair-share fee, and would have consented if they had been given a choice," the ruling said.

The workers say that the district court erred in the ruling. Mix said that the court should follow the logic of the Supreme Court and force the unions to pay restitution.

"The United States Supreme Court ruled that the SEIU had illegally confiscated union dues from tens of thousands of Illinois homecare providers, but the district court ruling denied those same caregivers the opportunity to reclaim money that never should have gone to the SEIU."

Update Sept. 28, 2016: A previous version of this story said Pamela Harris provided care for a daughter. Harris cared for her son.