Supreme Court

Supreme Court: You Can't Call Homecare Workers Public Employees and Force Unions on Them


Pam Harris, plaintiff in the case, cares for her son, Joshua.
Courtesy of Illinois Policy Institute

Before ruling on the Hobby Lobby contraception case, which is probably all you're hearing about right now, the Supreme Court also released a decision on Harris v. Quinn, an important case on public union membership.

In a narrow, partisan, 5-4 ruling, the court determined that Illinois cannot simply declare that home health care workers are public employees on the basis of them receiving government health funding and then force them to pay for union representation. Though this is a blow for unions, the impact is much less than it could have been. The majority did not rule that public employees, as a whole, could not be forced to pay dues to unions to represent them, even if they didn't want to belong to the union. Rather, the court ruled that these previous precedents did not extend to home care workers, who are privately employed, regardless of any government subsidies.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote the decision and was joined by justices John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas. He takes several paragraphs pointing out that these home workers are hired and paid for by private citizens, not the state of Illinois, and that the petitioners in the case were providing care for family members. They sued, arguing that forcing them to pay union dues was a violation of their First Amendment rights. In discussing the case, the court had to analyze precedents from Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. This decision authorized public sector unions to draw fees from workers even if they didn't want to be members of the union, just as previous precedents had allowed so for the private sector. The justification is that doing so preserves labor peace (conflict resulting from multiple bargaining units for the same groups of employees) and avoiding "free riders" (employees getting the benefits from collective bargaining without contributing to the union).

But Alito describes all the many, many ways these home healthcare workers are not state employees. They are not given access to state employee benefits and are not protected or covered by laws that target state employees. Alito writes, "The Illinois Legislature has taken pains to specify that personal assistants are public employees for one purpose only: collective bargaining." Alito notes that because of this odd classification, a union can't actually represent these workers in cases where, for example, a home worker is fired for specious reasons. The ruling also noted that the "labor peace" argument didn't apply here, as these homecare workers were hired individually to work in homes and thus labor peace was not an issue or potential conflict.

In conclusion, the majority ruled not to extend the Abood decision in this situation: "If we accepted Illinois' argu­ment, we would approve an unprecedented violation of the bedrock principle that, except perhaps in the rarest of circumstances, no person in this country may be compelled to subsidize speech by a third party that he or she does not wish to support. The First Amendment prohibits the collection of an agency fee from personal assistants in the Rehabilitation Program who do not want to join or support the union."

While this is a limited decision, it does extend outside of Illinois. It is not the only state who has forced homecare workers to pay union fees. And while the court didn't address the larger issues of forcing unionization (and union dues) on public employees, the majority opinion in several places express concerns and suggests flaws with the Abood precedent. The justices weren't willing to push further on this case, but the way Alito talks about the Abood case could be seen as a signal that the conservative justices, at least, may be interested in looking deeper into union law.

Justice Elena Kagan wrote the dissenting opinion, arguing that the state's unionization of healthcare employees falls well within the Abood precedent and claims that the workers have "joint employers" of their customer and the state. The more liberal justices do not appear to be wanting to rethink the Abood decision anytime soon.

Read the full ruling here (pdf). Some previous analysis of the case is here. More about the plaintiff here.