Without fanfare, Gov. Martin O'Malley signed executive orders this month giving collective bargaining rights to home health aides and child care workers whose pay is subsidized by the state, despite the General Assembly's rejection of those proposals.
In the orders, O'Malley said home health aides -- who provide services for disabled Marylanders through the Medicaid program -- often earn low pay, with few benefits or opportunities for training. And the child care work force, he wrote, needs to be stabilized and have a collective voice.
"If workers want to elect a union so their voices can be heard, we should not stand in the way of that," O'Malley said last night.
Both issues have been hotly debated in the General Assembly, and neither idea got a favorable committee vote this year. Collective bargaining for child care workers in particular pitted organized labor against some child advocacy organizations that argued that the proposal would make child care more expensive and put it out of the reach of low-income families.
"The long and the short of it is, he's doing something by executive order that the legislature did not agree with, and he's done it at a quiet time when he was on vacation so nobody would even know about it," said Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, the minority whip from Howard County.
"Why wouldn't he do a press release? I can only imagine it was because it would be seen as what it was: paying back the unions that supported him at the expense of low-income families," Kittleman said.
The child care workers provision was backed by the Service Employees International Union, which backed O'Malley in the 2006 election.
Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, the Southern Maryland Democrat who is chairman of the Finance Committee, said child care workers wanted the provision in hopes that it would lead to better pay and working conditions. But he and other lawmakers worried it would lead to more expensive care for fewer people and would run counter to the state's efforts to control spending in the face of a projected $1.5 billion budget deficit.
"It's better to do this through an executive order as opposed to through statute," Middleton said. "This way, the governor can try it and see how it works. He's the one who has to do the budget. If he can find a way to improve the quality of child care delivery system through collective bargaining and do it in the context of the budget, that's great."
Neither executive order requires that the workers join a union or forces them to pay union dues.
The effort to secure collective bargaining for home health workers was backed by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which also backed O'Malley in the election.
Joe Lawrence, a spokesman for the group, said the program saves the state money by helping the elderly and disabled stay in their homes. But he said there is high worker turnover because of low pay and difficulty getting referrals or payments.
"These kinds of issues happen when a work force doesn't have an adequate voice," Lawrence said.
Lorraine Sheehan, co-chairwoman of the advocacy group Medicaid Matters, said home health aides can be paid as little as $24.50 a day, leading to significant turnover and difficulty in recruiting quality workers.
She said some members of the disabled community worried that union rules would prevent the workers from performing some needed services, but Sheehan said she thought those details could be negotiated.
"If we can raise the rates for home care workers, that's wonderful," Sheehan said. "Anything that will increase the rates so we can get competent, qualified people that will stay and not be leaving every three months."