OLYMPIA, WA. — A Washington State Court of Appeals decision on April 12 eliminated the next-to-last obstacle standing between thousands of home-based healthcare providers and freedom from a union they never wanted to join and would happily leave if they knew they could.
The decision upholds a lower court ruling that rejected SEIU 775’s arguments for why the Freedom Foundation, an Olympia-based think tank, should not be granted access to a list of taxpayer-compensated caregivers.
The union’s last resort is now the Washington Supreme Court, but the latest ruling establishes a powerful precedent the Freedom Foundation can use should the case reach that level and in other, similar cases involving the Public Records Act.
“This is a huge win for workers’ first Amendment Rights and the principle of open, transparent government,” said Freedom Foundation Litigation Counsel David Dewhirst. “Meanwhile, SEIU 775 is one step closer to having to comply with laws it’s been blatantly ignoring for years. We couldn’t be happier.”
SEIU 775 has represented more than 30,000 Medicaid-subsidized home healthcare providers since 2001, when voters passed a ballot initiative allowing the workers to organize should they desire to. But a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision noted that individual providers working from home, usually caring for a loved one, were not full-fledged state employees and could not be required to join a union or pay representation fees.
The union, fearing mass defections, was understandably reluctant to inform its “members” of their newly affirmed rights, so the Freedom Foundation hired its own canvassers to contact caregivers in their homes.
But in order to fully implement the program, the organization needed the providers’ contact information, which is contained in government records. But when the Freedom Foundation in July 2014 submitted a records request to the Department of Social and Health Services, SEIU 775 responded by suing both the state and the Freedom Foundation to block its release.
The union argued the information was exempt from the Public Records Act because the Freedom Foundation intended to use it for “commercial purposes” and because knowing the names of the providers could potentially violate the privacy of the Medicaid clients being cared for.
The lower court disagreed with both arguments but left in place a temporary restraining order until the case could be appealed.
When the appeal was decided this week, it upheld the lower court’s ruling.
With respect to the commercial purposes argument, the court said it didn’t apply because there was no evidence to suggest the Freedom Foundation would gain economically from access to the provider list. “Economically injuring SEIU would not directly generate revenue or financial benefit for the Foundation,” the ruling stated. “Even if SEIU ceases to exist, there will be no direct financial benefit to the Foundation.”
Likewise, the court ruling denied the privacy of Medicaid recipients would be violated if the names of providers were released. “Even if we found these arguments persuasive,” the decision notes, “SEIU cites to no Washington case law or statute that would permit us to … encompass a situation that is not reflected in the plain language of the statute.”
“SEIU knew from the beginning its case had no merit, and they were simply trying to buy time,” Dewhirst said. “The union has had access all along to the same list we’ve been trying to obtain, and while the case has been tied up in court, they’ve been running around furiously trying to pressure as many of these workers as possible to sign membership cards.
“The problem is, many of these people don’t even know they have a choice,” he said. “All we want to do is tell them the truth and give them all of the information. It tells you all you need to know about the union’s insecurity that it’s fighting so hard to keep people from hearing about their legal rights.”