Even the opponents of Initiative 1501 agree the measure, on its face, sounds innocuous.
Billed as a way to prevent fraud against the elderly, the initiative would increase penalties for those who steal the identities of seniors and other vulnerable adults, while shielding those individuals’ personal information from public view.
The problem, I-1501’s detractors say, is that the initiative would also keep secret information about another group: the workers the state pays to care for those seniors and developmentally disabled individuals in their homes.
That is where I-1501 steps into a long-running battle between one of the state’s most powerful labor groups, the Service Employees International Union, and the conservative Freedom Foundation, which has been working the past two years to inform home health care workers how they can opt out of paying union dues.
Initiative 1501 is really SEIU’s last-ditch effort to prevent caregivers from being informed of their constitutional rights.
Maxford Nelsen, director of labor policy for the conservative Freedom Foundation
An officer with SEIU 775, which represents about 34,000 home health care workers paid by the state, said union members have complained about Freedom Foundation canvassers calling them, coming to their homes and using aggressive tactics to try to get them to leave the union.
They worry that if workers’ names and contact information aren’t exempted from disclosure under the state’s Public Records Act, the group’s anti-union efforts will only increase.
“There really is no protection for these caregivers’ privacy,” said Adam Glickman, secretary-treasurer for SEIU 775, which is the top supporter of the campaign to pass Initiative 1501.
“What the Freedom Foundation has been doing with our members has been disruptive and aggressive.”
But Freedom Foundation officials say they are just trying to inform home health care workers of their rights and that the group’s canvassers don’t persist with union members who say they don’t want to be bothered.
They say I-1501 is just a veiled attempt by the union to maintain a steady stream of member dues, which the union and its political action committee often use to support liberal political causes and candidates.
“Initiative 1501 is really SEIU’s last-ditch effort to prevent caregivers from being informed of their constitutional rights,” said Maxford Nelsen, the Freedom Foundation’s director of labor policy. “We certainly oppose it for that reason.”
There really is no protection for these caregivers’ privacy.
Adam Glickman, secretary-treasurer for SEIU 775, the top backer of the campaign to pass Initiative 1501
The Freedom Foundation first sought the names of home health care providers two years ago, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that those workers and other partial public employees can’t be forced to pay union dues. The group planned to contact the SEIU 775 members to let them know how they could stop dues from being automatically deducted from their pay, Nelsen said.
SEIU 775 sued to try to block the release of its members’ names, but the union lost that court battle this year. Afterward, Nelsen said the Freedom Foundation got a 2014 list of names. It is seeking an updated list.
While state law already prevents disclosure of personal information, such as Social Security numbers or credit card numbers, the law generally doesn’t consider names, email addresses and phone numbers to be sensitive personal information that can’t be released. I-1501 would change that by defining caregivers and their clients’ names as information that isn’t disclosed to the public.
Names and contact information for family child care providers — another group whose members have been contacted by the Freedom Foundation — also would be exempted from public disclosure requirements.
The SEIU’s Glickman said that although I-1501 was prompted by the union’s battle with the Freedom Foundation, it aims to address broader concerns about how easily anyone can access caregivers’ information under the state Public Records Act. He said protecting the identities of caregivers also helps protect the seniors they serve, since many state-paid home health care workers — about 60 percent of them — either live with the people they care for or are related to them.
“If you are a scam charity organization that does want to commit fraud, it would be an appealing target to get a list of people who you know are living with elderly or disabled clients,” Glickman said.
Under current law, “it just seems like you are giving a road map to these people who are really likely suspects for fraud and abuse,” he said.
We’ve heard of cases where scammers contact the caregivers as a means to gain access to the person who has the money.
Walter Bowen, president of the Washington State Senior Citizens’ Lobby, which supports I-1501
Other parts of I-1501 would impose harsher punishments for identity thieves who target the elderly or other vulnerable adults. The initiative would make scamming vulnerable adults or seniors a Class B felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison, regardless of how much money is stolen. Under current law, an identity thief must steal at least $1,500 to face the same penalties.
I-1501 also would increase civil penalties in fraud cases involving seniors, allowing judges to impose up to three times the amount of actual damages.
The Washington State Senior Citizens’ Lobby supports the initiative. Walt Bowen, the group’s president, said deterring identity thieves with stiff penalties is important, as is protecting the information of seniors and their caregivers from people who might abuse it.
“We know that seniors are really a prime target for financial exploitation,” Bowen said. “...We’ve heard of cases where scammers contact the caregivers as a means to gain access to the person who has the money.”
Nelsen of the Freedom Foundation said he doesn’t think new state-level penalties will deter criminals, since identity theft is already illegal and federal law already imposes strict penalties. He called the identity theft language “a smokescreen” to cover up the initiative’s real intentions.
They put some fluff on it and say it’s about identity theft, but it’s really not.
Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, who opposes I-1501
Toby Nixon, the president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, agreed.
“They put some fluff on it and say it’s about identity theft, but it’s really not,” Nixon said.
Nixon said he’s concerned I-1501 sets a dangerous precedent by allowing a special-interest group to “stealthily create a new exemption in the Public Records Act” via a citizen initiative. He said the public records law is an important tool for holding government officials accountable and needs to be maintained.
“It’s the slippery-slope problem,” Nixon said. “If we start allowing whoever it is to start peeling away our access to public records, we’re going to lose the whole thing in fairly short order.”
So far, SEIU 775 has spent about $1.2 million to support I-1501, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission, which tracks campaign spending.
SEIU 925, which represents about 7,000 family child care providers who would be affected by the initiative, has spent about $200,000 backing the measure. No other groups or individuals have contributed financial support.
While there is no organized committee opposing I-1501, the Freedom Foundation has spent about $4,000 worth of staff time on efforts to defeat it, PDC records show.
A complaint filed with the state Attorney General’s Office alleges that the Freedom Foundation didn’t report those expenditures properly. A PDC investigation found it appeared the Freedom Foundation violated campaign disclosure laws.
Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209