The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Harris v. Quinn on January 21, 2014. The case concerns whether a state can consider direct care workers, who are reimbursed through Medicaid, state employees and compel them to pay union fees exclusively to one private organization in exchange for negotiating better reimbursement under Medicaid. The Supreme Court will consider whether the constitutional rights of those workers are violated by Illinois laws that require them to pay dues to unions designated by the State to serve as their exclusive representative. In 2003 Illinois recognized personal assistants (PAs) who are reimbursed through a Medicaid rehabilitation waiver as state employees, designated SEIU as the exclusive bargaining agent, and required all PAs to pay mandatory union fees. In 2009, Illinois recognized direct care workers who provide services for individuals with disabilities under a home based support services Medicaid waiver as public employees. However, those workers voted against unionization.
The plaintiffs in the case, a group of eight direct care workers who do not want the union to represent them and do not believe they should have to pay partial union fees, argue that they are not public employees and that their First Amendment rights are being violated by being required to support a union to speak on their behalf. (The named plaintiff in the case, Pam Harris, provides in-home personal care services to her son who has a developmental disability.) Plaintiffs lost in the federal district court and in the U.S. Court of appeals for the Seventh Circuit. The appeals found the Illinois PAs to be public employees whom the state could compel to pay union fees to SEIU as their exclusive bargaining agent. (The court said that it would not decide the issue for direct care workers reimbursed through the home based support services Medicaid waiver because those workers had not agreed to union representation and were not being compelled to pay union fees.) Both the U.S. Government and the State of Illinois urged the court not to hear the case. The case has piqued the interest of labor unions and right to work advocates and could have far reaching consequences for public unions across the county. The case is also of interest to disability advocates.