by Angela Chagnon
Testimony was taken today in the House General, Housing and Military Committee Wednesday morning regarding H.97, the bill that would create a union for childcare providers. Rep. Mark Larson, the primary sponsor of the bill, was scheduled to testify but is currently out of state on a family matter.
Rep. Patsy French (D-Randolph) walked the committee through the steps taken by the Human Services Committee, of which she is a member, regarding H.97.
“When we took this bill up, our purpose was to improve the quality of early care and education for Vermont’s children,” said French. “We took a lot of testimony, spent a lot of time on this bill.”
Among those who testified were representatives from the two major teachers’ unions, the VT-NEA and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). The AFT is the primary supporter of the bill, providing organizational services and funding much of the pro-childcare union efforts.
The bill was originally intended to allow childcare workers to form a union to bargain with the state, and included childcare center owners and workers. The bargaining scope was also much broader in the original bill, and included bargaining for subsidies, retirement benefits, health insurance, professional development and training grants, and licensing regulations and fees. Other bargaining elements would have included the monitoring of home childcare businesses and centers.
The original bill would have also allowed the union to charge non-members an “agency fee”. This provision was removed by the Human Services Committee after “a lot of discussion”, according to French.
Rep. Duncan Kilmartin (R-Newport) pointed out earlier this week that although the “agency fee” provision had been taken out of the bill, there is no language to prevent the union from charging “agency fees”.
The bill as it stands now limits the union membership to include only childcare business owners, and is targeted at home childcare providers. Of those business owners, homes that provide care up to 12 children, registered homes with up to 6 children, and “legally exempt” childcare providers are allowed to join the proposed union if they accept subsidies from the state. Legally exempt providers are those who care for children from not more than two families.
Due to strong opposition from childcare centers, language that included this group in the bill was taken out. While childcare centers are excluded from the proposed union, workers at the centers are covered under existing laws regarding unionization.
The scope of bargaining has been narrowed down to subsidy payments, professional development and training grants, and to create a process for resolving grievances with the state. The current draft of the bill has no requirement to join the union, and does not make childcare providers state employees.
John Moran (D-Wardsboro) asked French why home childcare providers needed to form a union rather than just a trade association.
“It functions as a union, in that it can bargain with the state over issues that are important to them,” answered French.
Kesha Ram (D-Burlington) mentioned that union advocates had wanted to “have a voice in how they’re regulated”, and that was not addressed in H.97.
“We felt that was more appropriately a function of the state, and not a bargainable item,” said French.
French was asked by Tom Stevens (D-Waterbury) if the home-based childcare centers could be qualified to become part of a pre-K program and accept subsidies from the Department of Education.
“Joel Cook and Steve Dale talked to us,” French said, “Joel Cook representing the teacher’s union, and Steve Dale in his new role working for the Superintendent’s Association. He helped us with language around that school piece.”
When asked how the subsidy process worked, French explained that the parent applies to the state. The parent’s eligibility is determined on their income level, and if approved, the subsidy is sent directly to the childcare provider. The parent chooses which childcare provider receives the subsidy. French said that the bill “doesn’t change the way the money flows at all”.
Bob Bouchard (R-Colchester) asked if the ability for childcare union members to bargain for the subsidies would impact the subsidies for all other providers in the state.
“It will, yes,” replied French. She went on to say that there were many different rates for subsidies based on many different factors. “What they can bargain about is the subsidy rate.”
“What is it that the state isn’t doing so well that they feel that they have to unionize?” asked Boucher.
French responded that “we need to elevate this issue, it is so important to Vermont both for the families involved, for our economy, for our future. There are many studies that show how important early childcare is.”
“That doesn’t quite answer my question,” said Boucher. “Why is it that we’re at this point? …Is the state doing such a bad job that these people have to organize to get, you know…”
“I don’t think anyone is saying that the state is doing such a bad job, I don’t think that’s the point,” French remarked. She said that the bill would allow home-based providers to “interact” with the state. “This is just a way to improve what we’ve got. I don’t think anyone is intending to say that what we’ve got so far, that the state is doing a terrible job.”