By Adam Tobias | Wisconsin Reporter
WAUWATOSA, Wis. — A home health-care company contracted with the Milwaukee County Department of Family Care is accusing a local labor union of forging workers’ signatures to collect more money for political activity.
Art Beck, a Milwaukee attorney representing Sally Sprenger, owner of Supportive Homecare Options Inc., told Wisconsin Reporter two employees have come forward since April alleging they were signed up to make contributions without their authority.
The contributions were for the Committee on Political Education through the Service Employees International Union Healthcare Wisconsin.
After reviewing their forms for voluntary COPE deductions, which help fund union causes for political gain, the workers discovered their signatures were fraudulent, Beck said.
“It’s like a foreign document to them,” Beck said of the COPE application sheet. “They never saw it (before).”
SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin in May agreed to conduct an internal investigation after Supportive Homecare Options contacted the union about the complaints.
Dian Palmer, president of SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin, wrote Beck on Aug. 11, saying she could not find proof that any of her people signed the COPE documents.
“We have spoken to our staff to determine if there were any circumstances in which they had signed cards for members,” Palmer says in the letter. “They state they have not, and we do not have evidence to the contrary.”
But Sprenger contends SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin should be able to figure out who penned the COPE applications. Union representatives receive a commission whenever they sign someone up for the voluntary deductions, she said.
“If the people who signed our employees’ names got a commission off this, we think they should be able to go back into their books and see who did it … How could you not have data on who got the commission on these people?” Sprenger said.
Palmer, who made $154,596 in 2013, has not returned at least 35 calls and emails from Wisconsin Reporter over the past 10 days.
Supportive Homecare Options asked SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin to turn over the union contracts of the company’s nearly 300 union members. Management intends to compare those signatures with verified signatures on tax forms and other work-related records, according to Beck.
So far, Supportive Homecare Options has acquired several hundred COPE applications, but a majority of them are duplicates, Sprenger said.
“We still don’t have every one yet after four months,” Sprenger told Wisconsin Reporter.
Sprenger said she and her lawyer will weigh their options after her staff reviews all the signatures on the COPE cards to determine whether there were more incidents of forgery.
A different Supportive Homecare Options employee said she was overcharged for COPE contributions for months. She asked the union to reduce her deduction by $2 a pay period but continued to be charged the original amount, Beck said.
Beck says SEIU never submitted that request to Supportive Healthcare Options, which is responsible for deducting union fees from employees’ paychecks and sending the money to SEIU.
But all workers who reported unauthorized payments are getting their money back through the hold harmless clause, according to Beck. The refunds come from future union dues or fees.
“Even though the union hasn’t done anything about it, we have not allowed the employees to suffer as a result of it,” Beck told Wisconsin Reporter. “We have done what we could do to make them whole.”
Supportive Homecare Options has been negotiating a collective-bargaining agreement with SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin since December, but both sides have been unable to reach a deal.
Because of the recent forgery allegations, Sprenger said she is trying to relieve her company of the responsibility of deducting and paying union dues.
“There’s no reason why we should have to worry anymore about being embroiled in these conflicts…We were becoming an accomplice to forgery,” Beck told Wisconsin Reporter.
Since SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin has been made aware of the accusations, Palmer said, the appropriate union representatives have been reminded they cannot sign any documents on behalf of a member.
SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin has implemented a process in which managers check authorizations for membership and COPE deductions before the cards are submitted into the union’s system and sent to the employer, according to Palmer.
But Spenger said the main sticking point in the collective bargaining negotiations has been SEIU’s demands she force all her employees to join the union.
Sprenger has been told by SEIU she wouldn’t have to pay her staff the Milwaukee County mandated “living wage” of $11.32 an hour if she signed up all her 1,200 workers for union membership.
The living wage law, written by Milwaukee County Supervisor David Bowen with help from SEIU-affiliated officials, includes a provision that exempts county-contracted companies from paying the living wage if the employer agrees to a contract with a labor union.
While SEIU would see about $300,000 in extra revenue each year with the added membership, Supportive Homecare Options employees would end up making less because of the bi-weekly union dues.
Palmer and other SEIU representatives were able to persuade Bowen to request a county audit of Supportive Homecare Options for what Milwaukee County Supervisor Deanna Alexander calls “political retribution.”
Members of SEIU and Wisconsin Jobs Now organized a protest last week near Supportive Homecare Options, but Sprenger noticed only two of her company’s employees attending.