labor/35″/LK1st/mark2nd By JESSICA TOLEDANO Staff Reporter For more than a decade, Verdia Daniels has emptied bedpans, washed clothes and offered companionship to homebound disabled and elderly patients all at minimum wage and with no benefits. But Davis is fed up. And like thousands of other home health care workers in Los Angeles, she thinks joining a union might be the best way to get some relief. “We really help these people,” said Daniels, a widow who lives in the Crenshaw district. “One lady I took care of had bedsores all over her when she came home from the hospital. I nursed her back to health. These people really depend on us. We want respect and the union will help us get that.” Daniels is among more than 10,000 home health care workers who are voting this month on whether to join the Service Employees International Union, bringing to a close a decade-long effort to organize a workforce of 70,000 people scattered countywide. It’s certainly one of the most unusual organizing drives in recent memory. Rather than working at a single site for a single employer, these home-care workers are spread throughout the region, many of them working several hours a week for several different clients. Complicating matters, they are paid by a combination of federal, state and county funds. Union organizers have spent years tracking down these workers, enlisting hundreds of volunteers to scour the rolls of social service agencies and churches. “It has been a logistical nightmare,” said David Rolf, deputy general manager of SEIU 434B, the home health care workers union. “It takes weeks to find workers and once you get to their door they have quit or been fired. There is 40 percent turnover in this business, so it is not easy to keep a running list of people. There were so many nights I went home and said, ‘we just can’t win.’ ” But by the end of last year, organizers had finally located 10,000 home-care employees, enough to hold a National Labor Relations Board-sponsored election. Ballots were mailed Feb. 1 and results are expected by the beginning of March. Labor leaders are keeping a close eye on the election. If it succeeds, the drive could have far-reaching implications for thousands of other low-wage workers in Los Angeles. “If this is successful, it will increase union density by 10 percent in Los Angeles,” said Jon Barton, organizing director for the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO. “It gives all of the unions more clout.” More clout is key. For years, organized labor has been losing ground, dropping from 30 percent penetration in the nation’s workforce in the early 1980s to the low teens by the 1990s. As a result, labor organizers are targeting workers that traditionally have not been unionized, such as women, minorities and recent immigrants who, not coincidentally, make up the bulk of home health care workers. Government officials have offered no resistance to the SEIU’s organizing efforts for programs like In Home Supportive Services, which is administered by the county’s Department of Health and Human Services. It is an assisted-living service for very low-income elderly and disabled individuals. “The partnership with SEIU in this circumstance is a natural,” said Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. “This program saves the county a lot of money by keeping people out of nursing homes. Usually we are on opposite sides of the table, but it is not the case here.” Under the program, patients requiring assistance contact the county, which sends a social worker to evaluate how many hours the patient needs. Patients can receive between 20 and 283 hours of home care a month. About one-third of home-care workers are family members and the remainder are found through churches, civic organizations or the newspaper. Once the appropriate amount of hours is allocated, the state sends each patient a timecard to fill out so the worker can get paid. The workers receive minimum wage, currently $5.75 an hour, for tasks like food shopping, cleaning and cooking. But home-care workers complain that the system is flawed. Checks arrive weeks late. Clients will refuse to sign timecards unless workers agree to perform unpaid overtime. In other cases, abuse has been alleged. Complicating matters is that there has been no employer of record with which to file a grievance. About a decade ago, some workers contacted the SEIU and asked for help. The union wound up suing the county in an effort to make it accountable as the employer of record. They lost. So they went to Sacramento and lobbied to create a new agency to regulate the industry. Under legislation passed in 1993, the state created a 15-member public authority to begin monitoring the industry. The authority, set up last year with roughly $1.8 million in state start-up funds, is still in the process of organizing, but home-care workers say it is a major victory. Not only will it be a forum for complaints and other matters, it will keep a running list of workers and offer avenues for training.