OLYMPIA House Democrats passed a controversial bill that restructures how home healthcare workers contract with the state despite all 48 Republican members refusing to vote on it.
Senate Bill 6199 was requested by the state Department of Social and Human Services.
It would reclassify roughly 35,000 home healthcare workers statewide as private employees by contracting them through a third-party vendor.
It would also create a board of representatives from Gov. Jay Inslee’s office, Social and Human Services, and Service Employees International Union No. 775 (the union that currently represents the workers) to set pay rates.
Democrats and state officials argue the legislation will simplify the relationship with home healthcare workers, reduce administrative paperwork and improve patient care.
However, the bill, which originated in the Senate and is sponsored by four Democrats and one Republican, faced fierce criticism from both Senate and House Republicans, who argue that it is a veiled attempt to allow the union to force workers to pay union fees.
Specifically, critics argue that by reclassifying home healthcare workers as private employees, Service Employees International Union No. 775 can legally demand that they pay union fees, despite a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court ruling — Harris v. Quinn — that public employees can opt-out.
“In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court in Harris versus Quinn said that Medicaid-paid providers do not have to pay union dues,” said Rep. Joe Schmick, R–Colfax, during the March 1 House floor debate. “This bill is a big step backwards.”
As evidence that the bill is specifically serving union interests, Republicans have pointed to Service Employees International Union No. 775’s campaign contributions to numerous Democrats and a 2014 memo authored by staff at the state Office of Financial Management.
The memo said, in response to the 2014 court ruling, Service Employees International Union President David Rolf asked Gov. Inslee for legislation that would restructure state contracts with home health care workers.
“This is nothing more than a payback to a union,” said Rep. Joyce McDonald, R–Puyallup.
After passing the state Senate last month, the legislation was passed out of the House on March 1 on an unorthodox 50-0 vote.
All 48 Republican members refused to vote and were eventually recorded as “absent.”
Rep. Paul Graves, R–Fall City, said in a phone interview that House Republicans declined to vote because they were cut off several times during debate for criticizing the bill’s potential benefit to the union and the union’s financial campaign contributions to Democratic candidates.
During debate, several Republicans were gaveled down while asserting that Service Employees International Union No. 775 had influence over Democratic lawmakers.
House Speaker Pro Tempore Rep. John Lovick, D–Mill Creek, cut their remarks short on grounds they were impugning the motives of colleagues.
“We thought it was better to register our rejection of the whole process of the bill by simply refusing to vote on it,” Graves said. “What we wanted was to re-open the debate on it and have an honest debate.”
In response to reprimands from Rep. Lovick, Republicans criticized the House floor debate process, and accused the speaker of censoring them.
“This is about one thing and one thing only,” said Rep. Vincent Buys, R–Lynden. “This whole bill is a tortured attempt to veil something that we’re not allowed to talk about now on the House floor.”
On March 5, Gov. Inslee and Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson authored a guest column in The Tacoma News Tribune arguing the U.S. Supreme Court should rule in favor of unions in another court case concerning obligatory union fees, Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
In that case, plaintiff Mark Janus, a state childcare support specialist in Illinois, sued on the grounds that obligatory union fees violate his free speech rights.
In their editorial, Inslee and Ferguson argued that the collective bargaining power of public unions will be weakened if the court sides with Janus.
“If Janus succeeds, it will be a win for powerful special interests and another setback for the struggling American middle class,” they wrote. “Unions will still be obligated to represent all employees in the work unit, but those people will no longer be obligated to pay their fair share for these benefits, which threatens the financial viability of unions.”
In a March 5 statement, Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R–Spokane, an outspoken critic of Senate Bill 6199 who voted against it, called on Inslee to veto it.
He called the bill the most “secretive” and “corrupt” legislation that he’s seen in his eight years in the Legislature.
Service Employees International Union No. 775 has declined comment and directed media inquiries to Social and Human Services.