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Inslee signs controversial union bill despite calls for a veto

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Tuesday sided with public-sector unions in a showdown with Republicans and anti-labor groups by approving a controversial bill that will alter the contracting structure of home health care workers.

Senate Bill 6199 had drawn calls for a veto from many in the GOP and the conservative nonprofit Freedom Foundation, who argued its true intention is to let a chapter of the powerful Service Employees International Union skirt a court ruling to collect more money from employees.

Supporters have billed the measure as a way to streamline management services of the health care workers, known as individual providers.

Those roughly 35,000 providers currently contract with the state to serve the elderly and people with developmental disabilities. SB 6199 was first requested by the Department of Social and Health Services.

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Inslee, a Democrat, dismissed the underlying union debate on Tuesday. He told reporters the restructuring is “driven by efficiencies and a good way to serve people.”

The legislation plays into a long legal battle over whether such home-care workers should be required to pay for collective-bargaining costs.

Since Washington is not a so-called “right to work state,” union-only shops are legal. 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.

Typically, nonmembers don’t have to pay dues that bankroll overt political action, but must pay for bargaining-related costs. Workers are allowed to claim a religious or ethical exemption and pay an amount equal to union dues to a charity of their choice.

The state's home-care workers are an exception when it comes to the collective bargaining fees.

They're considered state employees when it comes to collective bargaining because they contract with the Department of Social and Health Services, but they are not full-fledged public employees, partly because they can be hired or fired by the people who receive services from them.

In the landmark 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision known as Harris v. Quinn, the court said such quasi-public employees are not required to pay agency fees or union dues since they're not full state workers.

This is where SB 6199 would come in. The bill would make home-care workers private employees by outsourcing the state's contracting role to a private vendor.

The individual providers still would bargain over wages and more with the governor's office and a 14-member board that includes state officials, but they technically would be employees of the private entity.

That private status would allow SEIU 775 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, the foundation’s director of labor policy, has said public records show roughly 4,000 home-care workers currently choose not to withhold union dues from their paychecks.

In the Legislature, minority Republicans fought hard against SB 6199. First, the GOP delayed the bill through collective uproar over transparency concerns when the Senate initially tried to pass SB 6199 after midnight in February. Republicans in the House later walked off the floor in dramatic fashion to protest what they saw as efforts by Democrats to stifle free debate. Because of that, the final vote in the 98-member chamber was 50 to 0.

As a last-ditch effort, many Republicans asked Inslee to veto SB 6199.

The Freedom Foundation submitted more than 1,000 petitions from home-care workers urging Inslee to block the measure.

The GOP pointed out the bill also is expected to cost the state at least $22 million every two years once it is fully implemented.

“Home care providers perform incredibly difficult work most often as a labor of love to help some of our most vulnerable citizens,” state Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, said in a written statement Tuesday. “Their rights should not take a back seat to a giveaway to powerful special interests.”

SEIU 775 has downplayed the idea that SB 6199 is primarily motivated by an attempt to collect more union dues.

In a post on its website, the union argues outsourcing will improve the current administration and payroll system that it describes as “overly complicated and burdensome for caregivers and consumers.”

SB 6199 “will free up caseworkers to address client needs, and will professionalize and improve payroll and administration,” the website reads.

At least 17 other states use private third-parties to run in-home care services, according to a letter sent to the Legislature by Bill Moss, an assistant secretary at DSHS.

Adam Glickman, Secretary Treasurer of SEIU 775, echoed those points in an interview Tuesday. He said the state passed the bill for a “completely unrelated set of reasons” other than its union implications.

But Glickman said the possibility of a union in which workers can’t opt out of collective bargaining costs without religious objection would be “a good thing” that would make SEIU a “stronger union.”

Glickman said sidestepping a Supreme Court decision, within legal bounds, to reach that goal is not unethical as some Republicans have claimed.

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with states legislating their values even if those values conflict with Supreme Court decisions,” he said.

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