Government unions have resurrected legislation in Olympia designed to prevent the Freedom Foundation from communicating with public employees about their right to refrain from or resign their union membership.
Though similar bills have died in the Legislature for the past five years, House Bill 1888, introduced by Reps. Zack Hudgins (D-Tukwila) and Javier Valdez (D-Seattle), would exempt public employees’ dates of birth from disclosure under the Public Records Act (PRA).
The bill is the latest in a series of union-backed proposals in Olympia to protect union coffers in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2018 decision in Janus v. AFSCME, which stuck down state laws, including Washington’s, requiring public employees to pay union dues as a condition of employment.
In preparation for the ruling, the Freedom Foundation requested lists of public employees from government agencies, only to have the unions’ tie up the requests in state court. However, in October 2019, after several years of litigation, the Washington Supreme Court confirmed that public employees’ dates of birth can be disclosed to the Freedom Foundation under the PRA, hence unions’ continued attempts to get the Legislature to change the PRA itself.
While the unions supporting HB 1888 publicly claim disclosure of public employees’ names and dates of birth poses safety and privacy risks, unions only began agitating for the legislation after the Freedom Foundation began using the information to conduct outreach to public employees about their rights.
In fact, unions admit the real motivation for the legislation in their communications to their members. For instance, Washington Federation of State Employees (WFSE) president Mike Yestramski wrote on the union’s website that,
“Groups like the Freedom Foundation misuse the provisions of the Public Records Act to gather public employees’ personal information and contact them in hopes of persuading them to give up their voices at work… But transparency in government was never meant to endanger those dedicated enough to serve our state.”
Of course, using public records to disseminate information about constitutional rights is completely legitimate and doesn’t threaten anyone’s safety. However, given the threat this information poses to their revenue streams, unions have resorted to hyperbole as a defense.
Such fear-mongering was on full display in a recent hearing on HB 1888 before the House State Government & Tribal Relations Committee. But none of the unions’ claims withstand scrutiny.
Public employees’ dates of birth have been subject to disclosure since voters passed Initiative 276 in 1971. During five years of legislative and judicial debates over the issue, unions have yet to document a single case of a public employee being harmed by the release of their name and date of birth under the PRA.
This is likely because names and dates of birth alone are not sufficient to perpetrate identify theft. Part of the reason may also be that state law already provides significant protections to those who may be at risk.
For instance: (1) Lists of public employees may not be used for “commercial purposes,” RCW 42.56.070(8); (2) the full dates of birth of law enforcement and criminal justice employees are already exempt from disclosure, RCW 42.56.250(8); (3) passage of HB 1692 in 2019 gave public employees who are victims of workplace sexual harassment or stalking robust protections to prevent their information from being disclosed to perpetrators under the PRA; and, (4) victims of stalking, domestic violence, trafficking or sexual assault can already prevent their information from being disclosed through participation in the Address Confidentiality Program authorized by Chapter 40.24 RCW and administered by the Secretary of State.
Even if HB 1888 passed, it would do little to protect many public employees because the name, address and date of birth of registered voters would still be publicly available. The only thing that would change is the ability to identify specific registered voters as public employees, which is precisely what the unions want, since it would make the Freedom Foundation’s outreach to public employees less effective. It’s worth mentioning that Secretary of State Kim Wyman told the Seattle Times in 2018 that she’s not aware of any instance of voter information being used for identity theft.
HB 1888 also would not prevent unions from continuing to compile massive amounts of public employees’ personal information, including even their Social Security numbers, since public employers generally provide this information to unions outside the parameters of the PRA.
In addition to the Freedom Foundation, the media and open government advocates like the Washington Coalition for Open Government are up in arms over HB 1888, with multiple newspaper editorial boards condemning the proposal.
The Seattle Times editorial board decried HB 1888 as “exploiting fears of cybercrime” to decrease government transparency “at the behest of unions feuding with the conservative Freedom Foundation” over its “aggressive” campaign to “(notify) public employees they have no obligation to pay union fees…”
Similarly, the Spokesman-Review editorial board pointed out that, while “(w)e haven’t seen a case yet of a criminal using public records law to get a birthdate and steal a public employee’s identity,” “a lot of good journalism and government watchdogging… uses birthdates to make sure that a public employee has been properly identified.” It, too, noted that government unions “are pushing this bill largely because conservative groups (the Freedom Foundation) use public records to contact workers and inform them that they don’t have to pay union dues.”
While union-backed lawmakers have demonstrated a willingness to keep bringing this zombie proposal back from the dead, HB 1888 deserves to meet the same end as its predecessors.