In Harris v. Quinn, the U.S. Supreme Court dealt a winning hand for home health workers who do not wish to join a public sector union, but the decision falls short of affecting all public employees.  Additionally, private sector union employees will not be impacted by the ruling.

In Illinois, home health workers are considered public employees for purposes of coverage under the Illinois Public Labor Relations Act (“IPLA”), but not for any other purpose.  Although home health workers are employees of the individuals for whom they provide care, home health workers that participate in the state Medicaid program are paid by the state through Medicaid.   The IPLA also includes a “fair share” or “agency fee” provision, like many other states, which provides that bargaining unit members who do not wish to join the union are nevertheless required to pay a fee to the union for the union’s representation in negotiation and administering a collective bargaining agreement. In effect, the home health workers were quasi-public employees that were required to pay public union dues.

In 2010, several home health workers filed a class action suit claiming that Illinois’ fair share provisions violated the First Amendment.  The Illinois District Court and Seventh Circuit disagreed; however, the Supreme Court sided with the home health workers.

U.S. Supreme Court Limits Fair Share Obligations for “Partial Public Employees”

In a split decision, the Supreme Court ruled that home health workers in Illinois cannot be compelled to pay dues to a union they do not want to join. To the relief of the unions, the Supreme Court did not go so far as to strike down the Illinois law requiring public-sector employees to pay fair share fees.  Instead, the Supreme Court limited its ruling to these “partial” public employees, who are not “full-fledged” public employees. Specifically, the Supreme Court found that the First Amendment prohibits the collection of an agency fee for these partial public employees who do not wish to join or support the union.

Why is This Limited Opinion Important?

This limited decision does not relieve full-fledged public sector employees from their obligations under state laws to pay compulsory union dues.  Instead, this decision carves out a very narrow exception specifically for these home health care workers. However, a reading of the strong language contained in the majority opinion leaves the impression that at least some of the justices are not supportive of compulsory union dues for any public employees.  In particular, the majority criticized the ambiguity in the use of union dues for collective bargaining and those used to promote a political agenda.

Although this ruling did not impact traditional public employees, the tone of the decision indicates that the Supreme Court would entertain the thought of a more broadly applicable change for public sector labor.