Democrats in Washington’s Senate tried to advance controversial union-backed legislation Wednesday but debate was postponed after it stretched into the early-morning hours Thursday and sparked fierce backlash over transparency from Republicans who oppose the measures.
Democrats said they pushed into the night with the two bills because they are trying to pass as much legislation as possible during this short, 60-day session. Cutoff for bills to get their first floor vote is Wednesday.
Republicans accused them of hiding from the public while trying to pass legislation that would help campaign donors.
GOP Sen. John Braun of Centralia called the measures a “sweetheart” deal.
“You shouldn’t introduce a bill under the radar and try to shove it out at night four weeks later with very little debate,” Braun said.
The late-night wrangling was the latest skirmish in a years-long fight between labor unions and the Freedom Foundation, a conservative think tank that has campaigned to reduce the size and influence of public-sector unions. Part of that effort is notifying state workers that they are not required to pay union fees.
The unions oppose those notifications and are pushing a bill this session that would shield the birthdates of state employees from public disclosure. The think tank has hoped to use the birthdates to identify state workers for its notification efforts.
Supporters of the birthdates bill, Senate Bill 6079, said it is necessary to protect state workers from identity theft and other threats.
“I think there is a clear threat to their privacy,” Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee told reporters Thursday.
Others, including many in the news media, oppose the bill, saying it would make it harder to hold public employees accountable.
The parliamentary fireworks works began Wednesday evening when Democratic senators tried to get votes on SB 6079 and Senate Bill 6199 after a full day of floor action on other legislation.
SB 6199 would overhaul the employment structure of home health care workers, also known as individual providers. They serve the elderly and children with developmental disabilities who need extra care to get by day to day. The individual providers work under contract but are managed by state employees.
The State Department of Social and Health Services, which requested the bill, contends SB 6199 would remove much of that management responsibility, freeing up state workers to concentrate more directly on clients in need.
Many in the GOP argue the bill would increase costs for the state and that the true intent of the legislation is to circumvent federal law by forcing home-care workers to pay union fees.
Because the more the 35,000 home health care workers contract with DSHS to provide their services, they are considered state employees when it comes to collective-bargaining. Still, they are not full-fledged public employees, in part because they can be hired or fired by the people who actually receive services from them.
Washington is not a so-called “right to work” state, meaning that union-only shops are authorized. That allows public- and private-sector unions to charge fees to nonmembers in place of dues. The fees are known as representation fees or agency fees.
Nonmembers must pay only for bargaining-related costs, meaning they don’t have to pay dues that bankroll overt political action. State workers are allowed to claim a religious or ethical exemption and pay an amount equal to union dues to a charity of their choice.
In a landmark 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision known as Harris v. Quinn, the court ruled home-care workers are not required to pay agency fees or union dues since they’re not full state workers.
SB 6199 aims to make those workers private employees by outsourcing the state’s contracting duties with an private vendor. The workers would technically be employees of the private entity although they would still bargain with the governor’s office and a 14-member board that includes state officials.
That private status would allow unions to create a shop where home-care workers must pay either union dues or agency fees if they don’t claim religious exemptions.
Maxford Nelsen, director of labor policy for the Freedom Foundation, estimated a such a shop could result in a windfall of more than $2 million a year for a local chapter of the Service Employee International Union that represents more than 45,000 workers in various long-term care settings. Nelsen said public records show 4,000 home-care workers currently choose not to withhold union dues from their paychecks.
“This reeks of special interest politics,” Nelsen told The News Tribune and The Olympian.
Adam Glickman, secretary-treasurer of SEIU Chapter 775, declined to comment and referred questions to Bill Moss, assistant secretary for the DSHS Aging and Long-Term Support Administration.
In an interview, Moss said, “The intent of the bill is to increase the amount of time that case managers get to spend with clients.”
Democrats largely dismissed the GOP claims that the home health care worker bill and the birthdates bill were handouts to unions. Senate Majority Leader Sharon Nelson of Maury Island said SB 6199 is necessary to boost the home-care worker system.
“We need a different format for our (individual provider) workers, and they are very critical for some of our most fragile individuals and seniors,” Nelson said. “So we are taking that action so we can go ahead and make sure that in the future there’s a clear definition of whether they’re a state employee or not.”
SB 6199, introduced Jan. 10 by Democratic Sen. Annette Cleveland of Vancouver, could cost more than $22 million every two years, according to a fiscal analysis done by nonpartisan legislative staff in the Senate.
Moss said the bill could come with some cost-savings in the future because the private vendor could better manage federal workplace regulations.
Republicans delayed a vote on SB 6199 in the early hours of Thursday morning through procedural rules and a deluge of proposed amendments that slowed debate. The GOP also delayed Senate Bill 6079.
Both measures could still be voted on later in the week.
Democrats said they they hoped to go through the lengthy process of shooting down the dozens of amendments to SB 6199 in order to set up debate for an actual vote later on.
“We needed a lot of time to get those done,” Nelson told reporters Thursday.
This is not the first time SEIU and the Freedom Foundation have clashed. In 2016, SEIU successfully passed an initiative that barred disclosure of some state worker information.
The Freedom Foundation had been using that information in its effort to inform home health care workers about how they can opt out of paying union dues.
Initiative 1501 was billed as a way to prevent fraud against the elderly that also exempted information home care workers and also imposed harsher punishment for identity thieves who target the elderly or other vulnerable adults.
That fight has now spilled into the Legislature, where Republicans remain opposed to the Democratic bills.
“This is the other side of the aisle doing the union’s bidding in the dark of night,” Braun said.