Politics & Government

Is revealing a state worker’s birthdate invasive or necessary to a functioning democracy?

A group of Democratic lawmakers is pushing to cut off a long-brewing court battle over public records between state labor unions and their foes by banning the disclosure of the birthdates of state employees.

While that lawsuit relates to an effort by the conservative Freedom Foundation to notify certain state workers about how to legally avoid paying union dues, new legislation on the topic has set off a wider battle over balancing privacy with government transparency.

Rowland Thompson, the executive director of The Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington, told a Senate panel on Jan. 19 that access to the names and corresponding birthdates of state employees is critical for the public to know “exactly who works for them.”

State Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, testified at the same hearing that Senate Bill 6079 would protect public employees “so that hackers and stalkers and crooks and other unsavory folks can’t get it for illegitimate purposes.”

Kuderer and 18 other Democrats introduced the legislation, which cleared a Senate panel Friday.

The disagreement over birthdates stretches back years. In May of 2016, a coalition of unions sued to stop records requests made by the Freedom Foundation, a conservative nonprofit dedicated to shrinking the size and influence of public-sector unions.

The organization has been trying to get the names and matching birthdates of certain state workers, hoping to use the information to get home addresses for canvassing and mail campaigns related to union dues.

State unions have been concerned the Freedom Foundation is trying to drain their membership. They’ve argued in court the requests for birthdates to match employee names might violate privacy laws.

In November, a three-judge panel in Division II of the state Court of Appeals ruled largely in the favor of unions, saying state workers have constitutional privacy protections that bar the Freedom Foundation from getting the names and corresponding birthdates of employees through public records requests.

The Freedom Foundation since has petitioned the state Supreme Court to review the matter, arguing releasing the information is not private and should be disclosed. The court has not yet decided whether to take the case.

Jami Lund, a senior policy analyst for the Freedom Foundation, painted Kuderer’s measure in part as a kickback for unions worried about losing money and members. Labor unions often favor Democrats when spending campaign cash, adding to the chances of the bill passing, Lund said in an interview with The News Tribune and The Olympian.

“This is the unions afraid of our ability to inform public employees of their constitutional right to reduce their payment to the union,” Lund said.

Lund also said he believes the privacy concerns are overblown. Birthdates with matching names aren’t enough information for someone “to commit any fraud or identity theft,” he said.

Thompson, the newspaper group’s lobbyist, said Kuderer’s bill reaches beyond a battle over union dues.

He testified that robust scrutiny of state employees is necessary when workers are entrusted to teach children, care for vulnerable adults or wield weapons to protect the public. That scrutiny sometimes requires birthdates of state employees, Thompson said.

Thompson brought up a 2003 investigation by The Seattle Times into coaches at public schools who sexually molested students. Reporters at the paper found 159 coaches in the decade before 2003 that were fired or reprimanded for sexual misconduct ranging from harassment to rape. Of those 159 coaches, at least 98 continued to coach or teach at the time, the Times reported.

Thompson said the paper used the birthdates of those coaches to track them through state databases when they transferred schools after an allegation of sexual misconduct.

Without birthdates, just having an employee’s name “is virtually useless in terms of trying to ascertain someone’s identity,” Thompson said.

State workers and union representatives also say the measure has implications beyond keeping unions whole. But they say privacy trumps the public’s right to know, in this instance.

Tim Welch, spokesman for the Washington Federation of State Employee, said in an interview that the bill is needed to prevent “serious threat to privacy and security of state employees.”

Melissa Kover, a state worker for the Department of Social and Health Services Division of Child Support, had a similar response when testifying at the January hearing.

Kover said her job entails establishing and enforcing child-support orders. She said people have threatened her, propositioned her and made records requests for her information.

“It’s really scary as a single parent of two teenagers to know that they can get that information and potentially show up at my house,” Kover said. “I just feel like the safety of state employees should be of the utmost importance, especially for what we do.”

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826, @walkerorenstein