A major union for health care workers in Pennsylvania is splitting with other labor groups in the state and opposing legislation that would keep an institution for developmentally disabled people open.
At issue is the Polk State Center in Venango County, Pa. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) issued an executive order to close the facility, but two bills in the state legislature, S.B. 906 and H.R. 1918, would keep the center open.
The Polk Center employs 700 people receiving state wages and benefits, and chapters of the United Food and Commercial Workers union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees have both come out in favor of the legislation.
But in a letter to Liberty Resources, a Philadelphia-area nonprofit that advocates for independent living for disabled people, the president of Services Employees International Union Healthcare Pennsylvania, which represents nearly 45,000 health care workers, said the union opposes those bills.
“SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania does not support HB 1918 and SB 906; we believe the strategy embodied in these bills only prolongs the inevitable without fundamentally solving the problem of protecting good jobs and services while providing real choice for community living,” President Matthew Yarnell wrote in int letter to Liberty Resources CEO Tom Earle, dated Dec. 12, obtained by The Hill.
“Instead, we propose a much more meaningful and long term solution that ensures opportunities for real and quality community living by protecting union workers and quality jobs for the long term,” he added.
Yarnell’s letter calls on Pennsylvania lawmakers to support transitional programs that allow disabled people the choice to live in the community while allowing the workers who provide services at the center to transition into home care services with their wages and benefits intact.
“The difference between the economic conditions of the union, state-employed caregivers and those of the largely non-union group homes, homecare agencies, and nursing homes is significant and has a direct impact on turnover and quality of the workforce,” he adds.
The fight over the future of the Polk State Center has pit many prominent unions in the state, eager to protect the institution’s jobs, against disability rights activists who want the center closed and other arrangements to provide better care for the disabled.
Little Lobbyists, an advocacy group for children with complex medical needs and disabilities, praised the SEIU statement, telling The Hill the group was “glad to see SEIU working in partnership with the disability community, particularly to create much-needed support for workforce development of the home care and direct support professionals who make it possible for our loved ones to survive and thrive in their homes and communities.”
“Unions have long worked to improve lives — not just for their members, but for families and communities across Pennsylvania and the country. Little Lobbyists firmly believe families belong together, and that people with disabilities should not be segregated in institutional settings,” Erin Gabriel, national director of advocacy and leader of the group’s Pennsylvania chapter, told The Hill.
“We welcome SEIU joining us in the fight to ensure a better future for all of our families,” she added.
The Arc of Pennsylvania, a Harrisburg-based advocacy organization for intellectually and developmentally disabled people, said in a letter to state senators urging them to vote against S.B. 906, that the measure represented an outmoded model of thinking on disability.
“It is now time for our current administration to move away from a segregated, state-center model of support to one that invests in the aspirations of people with disabilities — the aspirations we all have — of living in our own home in a typical neighborhood, having control over our own life, taking a walk in the neighborhood, getting a job, going to church or synagogue, and having real friends — other than just those who are paid to provide care and support,” a coalition of disability leaders led by Arc Executive Director Sherri Landis said in a statement.
“All individuals with disabilities deserve the opportunity to experience life in the community, just like anyone else,” the letter added.
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Major unions have often been at odds with disabled advocates over the closure of state hospitals and asylums, which advocates say are harmful and infringe on patients’ autonomy while unions have advocated on behalf of the workers at such institutions.
The Polk Center specifically has been the subject of numerous allegations of abuse and mismanagement. Six doctors were arrested in 1999 in connection with the deaths of three patients, and police investigated an alleged sexual assault at the institution as recently as February 2018.
Unions have argued against home- and community-based care by claiming they are a form of privatization that aims to undermine union labor. AFSCME has called such services “yet another way to push the responsibility for service and funding into the private sector.”
Forced institutionalization, a major issue among disability rights advocates, also received attention in the presidential race this year when Sens. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisKrystal Ball questions Biden’s durability in 2020 field Major union backs push to close Pennsylvania center for the disabled Biden’s firewall is his Super Tuesday Southern strategy MORE (D-Calif.) and Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharUnion leader: Boycott of LA debate shows ‘workers have to be front and center’ Teacher’s union leader: DeVos is ‘a cautionary tale’ of presidential impact on public education Major union backs push to close Pennsylvania center for the disabled MORE (D-Minn.), as well as South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegTrump tops Democratic rivals in national poll Biden, Sanders lead Democratic field in early primary states Krystal Ball questions Biden’s durability in 2020 field MORE, who are 2020 Democratic contenders, unveiled mental health care reform plans. The plans sparked criticism from activists who said they would increase involuntary institutionalization of people with mental illness.