Powerful union pushes for wage benefit in state budget

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Tucked into the state budget is a proposal that would give a salary boost to workers affiliated with New York’s most powerful health-care union.

  Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union is lobbying lawmakers to include a passage in the state budget that would set a “standard wage” for nursing home employees.

   The union says the provision is necessary to prevent employers from reducing workers’ pay as the state continues to move nursing home patients into managed-care health plans.

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But critics see it as a way for the union to boost its hand as it heads into contract negotiations this fall with some downstate health-care systems and set the stage for unionizing some upstate nursing homes. They also think it could result in rate hikes that nursing home patients pay.

 It's an issue that's flown below the radar of the state budget debate, but could have implications for this year's elections.

   Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, and the Democrat-controlled Assembly have backed the standard-wage proposal. But the politically-split state Senate omitted it from its budget plan, and now is the focus of a lobbying push, a source said. Lawmakers are negotiating to settle the budget by April 1.

  “It’s an open item,” said Sen. Kemp Hannon (R-Garden City), chairman of the Senate Health Committee. “We’ve been asking for numbers about the implication, the reach, the mechanics and, frankly, I haven’t gotten any answers yet.”

   1199/SEIU has been one of the most powerful players and biggest spending lobby groups in New York politics for years. It spent $6.8 million lobbying in 2011, although it dramatically reduced its efforts in 2012. Its backing was seen as a factor in Bill de Blasio rising above a crowded field to win the New York mayoral election.

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  It is also one of the unions that provide backing for the Working Families Party and met with Cuomo on Monday.

  The union brought some 4,000 members to Albany for a rally Wednesday, just two blocks away from the State Capitol. The rally focused on various wage issues.

    “Our fear is that health plans will say to nursing-home workers: ‘You were getting $200 a day but we’ll give you $175. Or $150. Take it or leave it,” said Helen Schaub, 1199/SEIU political director.

  A coalition of health insurance plans and health-care facilities is urging senators to reject the proposal.

 "If adopted, this unfunded mandate would ironically force providers to cut direct care staff, threaten the viability of many facilities and adversely affect access to high quality services," the coaltion said in a letter to lawmakers.

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