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Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

After Long Battle, Childcare Unionization Bill Gets Senate Vote

Thirteen years ago, Kay Curtis transformed the two-car garage attached to her Brattleboro home into a small childcare facility. She calls it Happy Hands: A Little School for Little People. And of the 16 families she serves, 12 pay with childcare subsidies supplied by state government.

But those subsidies haven’t increased much over the past decade. And as a small businesswoman consumed by the day-to-day of caring for small children, Curtis isn’t exactly able to negotiate her compensations rates with the state of Vermont.

“So what I’m very interested in having is a voice in the decisions that get made around our profession,” Curtis says. “I think that we are the experts when it comes to home programs that take care of children. And currently it’s very difficult for us to get a voice.”

"What I'm very interested in having is a voice in the decisions that get made around our profession." - Kay Curtis, owner of Happy Hands childcare center in Brattleboro

Under a bill advanced in the Senate Thursday, Curtis and about 1,400 other home-based childcare providers may get the voice many of them have been seeking.

The bill would grant collective bargaining rights to childcare providers. And the vote caps a four-year battle by providers and the union that wants to represent them.

The bill long ago won support in the House. But opposition from leadership, including Senate President John Campbell, had stalled progress in the Senate. The 22-to-8 vote in favor of the bill Thursday was its first test on the Senate floor. And it signals a significant victory for legislation that now looks cleared for final passage before the end of the 2014 session.

Heather Riemer is campaign manager for the Vermont Early Educators chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, the union that wants to represent childcare providers like Curtis. She says childcare providers feel like “they’re isolated, they don’t have enough of a voice with the state.”

“And so what they’re telling us is they would like to come together and form a union in the same way that nurses do and firefighters and teacher do,” Riemer says.

The proposal has been altered since its introduction, and would no longer include larger childcare centers, like the YMCA, in the collective bargaining process. The concession was made to broaden support in the Senate.

But opponents say the state is still making a grave mistake. Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, says allowing small-scale providers to unionize opens the door to collective bargaining by other businesses which  models include state subsidies.

"We are going down the dangerous road of starting to unionize businesses." Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland

  “This is a huge effort to set groundbreaking, precedential unionization efforts where we are going down the dangerous road of starting to unionize businesses,” Mullin said in a floor speech Thursday.

Mullin says that if legislators have concerns about how much childcare providers are making, they should simply vote to raise subsidy levels.

Windsor Senator Dick McCormack, a Democrat, says providers certainly need higher compensation rates.

“But people also unionize for the purpose of dignity, that one not be dependent on the goodwill of the state … for one’s earnings, but that workers can come to the negotiating table empowered by collective bargaining,” McCormack says.

The Department of Children and Families in this fiscal year will send about $48 million to subsidize the childcare costs of about 8,700 children. Much of the budget for subsidies flows to the childcare centers, whose subsidy rates won’t be the subject of collective bargaining.

But if the bill passes, and home-based providers do decide to form a union, then about 40 percent of all subsidies would be up for negotiations. Providers would also be able to negotiate professional development programs as part of the collective bargaining agreement. Only licenses providers would be able to join the union.

The Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Office estimates that the bargaining process could result in rate increases totaling as much as $2.5 million. The proposal would also add to legal costs at the Agency of Human Services. Lawmakers have added language to the bill saying that the agency must absorb those additional legal costs within its existing budget, and not cut from childcare programs to fund its role in the negotiating process.

The legislation will get another vote on the Senate floor before heading to the House, where lawmakers are expected to look favorably on the bill.

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