By Adam Tobias | Wisconsin Reporter
MILWAUKEE, Wis — A liberal Milwaukee County board member with ties to Big Labor is taking a page out of the Internal Revenue Service playbook.
County Supervisor David Bowen, who worked with Service Employees International Union-affiliated officials on the county’s newly implemented “living wage” law, is calling for a county audit of Supportive Homecare Options Inc., one of three private firms contracted with the Milwaukee County Department of Family Care.
Bowen is making the request even though Family Care officials review budget documents every year and have found no financial inconsistencies with Supportive Homecare Options’ records, sources say.
Sally Sprenger, owner of Supportive Homecare Options, has been an outspoken critic of Bowen’s taxpayer-funded wage increase since the very beginning, mainly because the millions in added costs are projected to exhaust the reserves of Family Care by 2019, jeopardizing the jobs of her company’s nearly 1,200 employees.
During close to eight months of collective bargaining negotiations, Sprenger also hasn’t caved in to SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin’s demands that she require her entire workforce to join the union.
“They are doing this for political retribution … I think (Sprenger) is being targeted for her conservative, pro-business, pro-liberty views and for being vocal about them,” Milwaukee County Supervisor Deanna Alexander told Wisconsin Reporter.
Bowen, who has received campaign contributions and political endorsements from SEIU and its front group, Wisconsin Jobs Now, asked for the county audit at last Thursday’s Health and Human Needs Committee meeting.
Bowen, a candidate this year for state Assembly, said he wants to find out if tax dollars are being used to “attack our own employees that do services for the county.”
SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin President Dian Palmer and Andrea Anglin and Arkesia Jackson, two Supportive Healthcare Options employees who are members of SEIU, also attended the same meeting to push for the taxpayer-funded audit.
They also want to know if money is being taken from workers’ salaries to pay for Sprenger’s legal fees for collective bargaining.
The Department of Family Care, which assists the elderly and disabled, gets all its funding from the state through the Medicaid program, according to Maria Ledger, director of the county agency. The total amount given to Family Care is based on the number of patients it serves every month.
But Ledger told Wisconsin Reporter there is nothing illegal or unethical about any of the companies contracted with Family Care — including New Health Services and Temps Plus — using money from their management fees to pay for work-related legal services, which is what Sprenger says she is doing.
“Most businesses have legal counsel,” Ledger said. “It’s part of the administrative structure of a business. You need to have representation the same way that you need to have an HR person and someone to call when the elevator breaks down.”
The Department of Family Care also sets the minimum wage for all supportive home care workers contracted with the county, according to Ledger. The hourly wage is currently set at $10.27, more than $3 dollars higher than the federal and state minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.
Family Care staff also reviews the payroll files of all contracted firms at the end of the year when employees receive bonuses or pay raises, Ledger said.
Ledger told Wisconsin Reporter she has never seen any irregularities in Supportive Homecare Options’ records.
Supportive Homecare Options has been in collective bargaining negotiations with SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin since mid-December — around the same time Bowen first introduced his living wage ordinance to the county’s Finance, Personnel and Audit Committee.
In the early stages of negotiations, Sprenger said she was told by Bonnie Strauss, staff director at SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin, that she wouldn’t have to pay her employees a living wage if she forced all her personnel to join the union.
Bowen’s living wage law includes a provision that exempts county-contracted companies from the wage hike, but only if their workers are covered by a collective bargaining agreement between the employer and a bona fide labor union.
But if employees become members of a union and their salaries are kept the same, they actually would be making less because of union dues and fees, Alexander said.
“When you did all of the math, (SEIU was) ready to throw the employees under the bus without them realizing it,” Alexander told Wisconsin Reporter. “The union would have got a cut, the employees would’ve had technically a lower wage in the end and Sally would’ve been able to benefit if she went along with that. But she didn’t think it is was right to bargain behind her employees’ back with the union like that.”
About 300 employees with Supportive Homecare Options are voluntary members of SEIU, but if the entire workforce were to join, Sprenger said the union would see its dues collections jump by almost $300,000 annually — with the same taxpayer dollars SEIU doesn’t want to see going to the other side of the bargaining table.
“That’s a big statement for the union in terms of its treasury,” said Art Beck, the attorney representing Sprenger.
Sprenger indicated she will never agree to that particular requirement by SEIU because she has “always fought for years that my employees should have the right to choose.”
SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin has filed charges against Supportive Homecare Options with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging the company has unilaterally changed its employee orientation without notification or bargaining with the union.
Supportive Healthcare Options also has filed charges with the same agency, claiming that SEIU Heathcare Wisconsin isn’t negotiating in good faith.
The next collective bargaining session between Supportive Homecare Options and SEIU is Monday, according to Beck. The two sides have already met about eight times since December, Beck said.
Bowen has been directed by Health and Human Needs Committee Chairwoman Peggy Romo West to work with research staff on preparing a resolution and fiscal note for the proposed audit.
Alexander said she will not support the resolution and intends to request an amendment that would require an audit of all companies contracted with Family Care — not just Supportive Homecare Options.
“If they vote that down, then that will really speak volumes,” Alexander told Wisconsin Reporter. “And, at a minimum, at least it equalizes the playing field.”