The “living wage” ordinance may have passed the Milwaukee County Board just last week, but that didn’t stop the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) from using the newly minted mandate to strong arm a local contractor in December.

Sally Sprenger runs Supportive Home Care Options Inc, a firm that contracts with the County’s Family Care program, which helps elderly and disabled populations.

In a phone interview, Sprenger said SEIU guaranteed her an exemption from paying the County’s wage hike if she agreed to deduct union dues from all of her employees’ paychecks.

Sprenger's situation adds to the mounting evidence that the "living wage" law is mainly designed to boost union coffers, not help low-income workers.

According to Sprenger, Bonnie Strauss, a project manager for SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin, pitched the dues-for-exemption proposal to her and Art Beck (her lawyer), on December 16, 2013. The Red Fox blog could not reach Strauss for comment.

Supportive Home Care Options has more than 1,150 employees, but only 317 of them pay union dues. If Sprenger agreed to the payroll deductions, or what SEIU calls “union security,” she estimates it would generate an additional $300,000 a year in new revenue for SEIU.

That’s quite the payday. How is SEIU able to make such demands? They can thank the County Board.

A provision in the County living wage ordinance specifies that companies doing contracting or subcontracting work with the County are required to pay their employees a minimum wage of $11.32 an hour or 100% of the federal poverty rate for a family of four; but there is a big catch. The ordinance specifies that companies that have collective bargaining agreements may be exempted.

“It’s a windfall for the unions,” Sprenger said. “We’re about to be priced out of business and County Board Supervisors never asked us any questions.”

That’s probably because Supervisors didn’t write the bill.

“SEIU told me they wrote the living wage ordinance and that they singled out only the companies they represented," Spranger said. "After it passed, they said they were going back to the County Board to include all of Aging, Disability, Behavioral and Mental health providers in the County."

Supervisor Jim “Luigi” Schmitt told the Red Fox blog in December that SEIU worked on 16 different drafts on the living wage ordinance in collaboration with Supervisor David Bowen.

Peter Rickman, an operative for SEIU, prepared the County Board’s Finance committee members with living wage talking points for their public hearing and a point-by-point rebuttal by SEIU lawyers in Washington DC to a legal memo furnished by Milwaukee County’s Corporation Counsel.

Sprenger may object to her employee’s losing the choice to pay union dues voluntarily, but she also has to wrangle with the possibility of losing her Family Care contract with the County.

“I can see myself being told that our contract will be ending in two or three years because we will have priced ourselves out of competition,” Sprenger said.

But Sprenger and other Family Care providers seem to have a new fighter in their corner. Representative Chris Kapenga, a young politician quickly developing a no nonsense reputation in the legislature, is proposing a bill (AB750) that would preempt local units of government from attaching living wage rates to workers in programs that receive any state or federal money.

Sup. Bowen denounced the proposal as a “slap in the face” of local control. Kapenga retorted that he's all for local control as long as it’s paid for by the locals.

“Once you start taking other people’s money to pay for it [the living wage], those people should have a say in how it is spent,” Kapenga said.

The Family Care program is funded largely by the state. According to a fiscal report by the County Comptroller, the County’s “living wage” ordinance would burn through the program’s reserves by 2019.

In a previous fiscal statement, County Comptroller Scott Manske said the program risks being shut down if the Family Care reserve is depleted. “The current trend by the state has been to terminate insolvent programs,” Manske concluded in December.

Kapenga’s bill – which has been scheduled for a hearing at the Capitol today – has Voces de la Frontera and Wisconsin Jobs Now worked up into a frenzy.

“All hands on deck! Alec and the GOP are trying to make all living wage laws in Wisconsin illegal,” Voces said on their Facebook page. Wisconsin Jobs Now calls it a “direct attack on democracy.”

Whether it’s an attack on democracy remains to be seen. It’s far more likely to be an attack on SEIU’s new revenue-making scheme. It pays to write the living wage ordinance, literally.


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