Opponents of an effort to unionize in-home child-care providers are blasting the state for how it is handling an election that will determine whether a union is formed.

Rochester daycare provider Jennifer Parrish argues that providers who should be allowed to vote are being left out. As a result, only 2,348 child care providers are getting a ballot. That's far less than the 8,000 to 10,000 providers that lawmakers talked about when the child care unionization bill passed in 2013.

"It seems like every step is meant to either suppress the vote of child-care providers or make sure they are only getting one side of the information," said Parrish, leader of the Coalition of Union Free Providers.

Apple Valley Republican Rep. Tara Mack also sent a letter to the governor on Tuesday calling on him to cancel the election because of concerns about its legitimacy. But Gov. Mark Dayton dismissed those concerns, saying the complaints are the latest example of critics trying to prevent a union vote.

"This is one more of these harassing tactics that I guess is just going on," Dayton said. "Why not let there be an election and why not let the workers decide for themselves? That to me is the American way to proceed."

Ballots have already gone out to providers who care for children eligible for the state's Child Care Assistance Program or CCAP. If a majority votes "yes," in-home daycare providers would join AFSCME, which represents public sector workers in the state. The union would have the right to collectively bargain on behalf of these providers with the state. Ballots will be counted on March 1.

Who gets to vote?

The Minnesota Department of Human Services was responsible for determining which providers were eligible to vote. The department concluded that only child care providers who received a CCAP payment in December should be allowed to vote. According to the department, that decision was based on language in the the statute that states a provider must have a child or children "currently" in their care who receives state money to be eligible. But Parrish contends that the bill's author, Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, repeatedly told lawmakers that the bill would give all providers who cared for a child receiving state subsidies in the previous 12 months the chance to vote.

Parrish said she is only extremely frustrated with the state's Bureau of Mediation Services, which is in charge of the election. She said her organization requested to be informed when an election had been called and that never happened. In addition, she said it took days to get a copy of the list of eligible providers. And while the election order said ballots would be mailed out Monday, Feb. 8, she said she found out the ballots were actually mailed out on Friday, Feb. 5 at the same time she was raising concerns about the election process.

Parrish said she was so frustrated, she reached out to Sen. Dave Senjem. The Rochester senator said he has serious concerns with how the election is being handled.

"There is obviously a political agenda being moved through a state agency, and that is concerning. Obviously, the governor and the commissioner of (Human Services) would seem to be complicit in this and that is dead wrong," Senjem said.

A representative with the Bureau of Mediation Services could not be reached for comment. Pappas said that when the legislation passed in 2013, there was uncertainty because there were two versions of the bill. At one point, she fielded questions on the bill for 18 hours during a heated floor debate.

"There was a lot of confusion. I think I probably did misspeak. All you can do at that point is go back and look at the actual language," Pappas said.

In the end, Pappas said she believes that the bill language is being interpreted correctly. She said the only thing she is concerned about is that Wright County in-home daycare providers who cared for a child receiving CCAP in December were excluded from voting because the payments didn't get sent out until January. She said she thinks those providers should have been allowed to vote.

Still, she said it's important the election be allowed to move ahead.

"These folks have been waiting three years to vote on whether they want a union or not. Let's not let the perfect be the enemy of the good," Pappas said.

Concerns over Child Care Assistance

Lisa Thompson has been fighting for a union for more than a decade. The St. Paul daycare provider was among the first providers who approached AFSCME to talk about forming a union. Fueling that push was a belief that in-home daycare providers would be better able to tackle challenges and make lasting change if they were united.

"Our profession could go the way of the family farm if we don't join together and hold up and protect it and ensure that this really fantastic environment for young children is still available for generations to come," Thompson said.

She serves as president of AFSCME's Child Care Providers Together Local 3400. She said providers have serious concerns about how cumbersome the CCAP program is for both families and providers. It's particularly difficult for providers who are not fluent in English and are trying to navigate the system.

Thompson said she remains surprised by the fierce opposition to unionization among some of her fellow providers.

"I think it's more about anti-unionism than it is about the legitimacy of a union for family child care providers. The anti-union extremists want to make this about politics, but for us it's not anything to do with politics," she said.

AFSCME spokeswoman Jennifer Munt said Child Care Providers Together's monthly dues are $25. Those dues would not kick in until providers ratify their first contract with the state and would be voluntary.

Parrish is doing her best to make sure the union vote fails. She and a few dozen other providers are calling all 2,348 providers who have received ballots and urging them to vote no. She said she has no problem with providers voluntarily joining a union. What bothers her is the idea that all in-home daycare providers would be forced to be represented by the union.

She added, "What I'm opposed to is what this election is about and that's denying thousands of child care providers the right to choose whether or not they want to be in a union."

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