Homecare workers hold protest outside of DHS over late pay
Workers hired by the state to give in-home care for some of Oregon's most vulnerable say the Oregon Department of Human Services is repeatedly not paying them on time.
It's caused by a software error and has been happening since the 1990s, said Rebecca Sandoval, a Service Employees International Union Local 503 board member and homecare worker.
"People are getting evicted from their homes, their credit is getting ruined," Sandoval said to about 50 other SEIU members protesting Thursday outside of DHS headquarters in Salem.
SEIU 503 has about 18,000 dues-paying homecare members and bargains contracts for about 30,000 homecare workers. Sandoval said the union does have data showing how many workers have been paid late and how frequently it happens, but it wasn't available Thursday.
A survey sent out by the union to homecare workers in December asked a variety of question to see what the union should focus on in bargaining. Of the 1950 respondents, 42 percent said they've been paid late.
Sandoval receives about three calls per month from members who are late to be paid, she said.
The issue is the software system sometimes deletes timecards the workers submit, several protesters explained. Then when workers complain because they aren't paid, DHS employees ask for proof of work, meaning the system erased the timecards, the workers said. It can take months to resolve, meanwhile workers are late on their bills and have to borrow money or take out loans.
One woman, who asked to only be identified by her first name, Esperanza, takes care of several little kids. Recently she filed for renewal of her license, and the paperwork was erased by the system, she said. When she went into the DHS office, a caseworker became angry and began yelling at her. She was offended and left, she said, and it made her reluctant to go back. It took three months to resolve the issue, during which time she was out of work and the children didn't have a caretaker. She had to borrow money from family to pay her bills.
Esperanza's experience was similar to several protesters rallying outside of DHS Thursday afternoon. They shared stories, made signs and signed petitions while Neil Young's "Union Man" played in the background.
At 12:45 p.m., the group marched into the building and circled the lobby, chanting things like "Government, pay your bills on time!"
They occupied the building lobby for about 15 minutes while DHS employees on the second and third floors peered down at the demonstration. They requested Aging and People with Disabilities Director Ashley Carson Cottingham and Developmental Disabilities Services Director Lilia Teninty come down and personally take the stacks of 1,000 written accounts and petitions from members detailing the impacts of not being paid on time. The women never came down, and DHS's communications staff declined to talk with reporters directly, but issued a statement.
"Our data shows that the vast majority of payments are on time," spokeswoman Sherryll Johnson Hoar said in a statement. "The instances in which a payment is later than the scheduled payroll date can be the result of a number of issues, from incomplete information submitted to an error on the state's part."
Hoar provided data stating that of the two systems that processed homecare workers' pay, one paid employees late 2.2 percent of the time, and the other .0007 percent of the time. The statement also said they are unable to say with certainty how accurate those numbers are.
Hoar added that state will pay bank fees related to the late payments — something Sandoval said SEIU got in a previous bargaining session.
"If we can prove we incurred them, they will pay those," Sandoval said. "And that's wonderful and that's something we've fought hard for… That doesn't fix the problem and what we need is to stop the late pay from happening.
"Even if they get a fix a month or six weeks down the road, that doesn't help when they got evicted here, or when their car was repossessed here, or couldn't pay for their kid's school picture's here. The problem has got to be fixed before it happens."
The union is now in the middle of a new bargaining session, where they are working to address the late payment issue. The two sides are actively negotiating, which Sandoval said will go on for a couple more weeks. She declined to detail those talks, but said they're still far apart.
"We have gotten responses from them about improvements on the end after it's happened, but nothing about stopping it from happening," Sandoval said.
Olga, another woman who declined to give her full name out of fear of losing her job, said she's sporadically been paid late for years. Last year it became a monthly occurrence, she said. As a Spanish speaker who doesn't speak English well, she said it's hard to advocate for herself. One time, she brought her son in to help her. A DHS employee told them a check was in the mail, but it never came, she said. She was able to feed her family through the federal food assistance program, but had to borrow money for other expenses.
Working and then not getting paid is extremely frustrating, she said.
"It's an injustice," she said through a translator.