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.
The bill, SB 6199, which was requested by the state Department of Social and Human Services, would reclassify roughly 35,000 home healthcare workers across Washington as private employees by contracting them through a third party vendor.
It would also create a board made up of representatives from Governor Jay Inslee’s office, DSHS, and SEIU 775 — the union that currently represents the workers — to set their pay rates.
Democratic lawmakers and state officials argue that the legislation will simplify the state’s 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 SEIU 775 to force workers to pay union fees.
Specifically, critics argue that by reclassifying home healthcare workers as private employees, SEIU 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 of fees.
“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 floor debate on the bill in the House.
“This bill is a big step backwards,” he said, adding that it will make workers pay dues even if they don’t want to.
As evidence that the bill is specifically serving union interests, Republicans have pointed to SEIU 775’s campaign contributions to numerous state Democrats and a 2014 memo authored by staff at the state Office of Financial Management.
The memo states that, in response to the 2014 court ruling, SEIU 775 President David Rolf asked Gov. Inslee for legislation that would restructure the state’s contracts with home health care workers.
“This is nothing more than a payback to a union,” said Rep. Joyce McDonald, R-Puyallup, at the March 1 floor debate of the bill.
After passing the state Senate last month, the legislation was passed out of the House on March 1 on a unorthodox 50-0 vote, with all 48 Republican members refusing to vote. They were eventually recorded as “absent” in the roll call vote.
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 floor debate for criticizing the bill’s potential benefit to SEIU 775 and the union’s financial campaign contributions to Democratic candidates.
During debate, several Republicans were gaveled down while asserting that SEIU 775 had influence over Democratic lawmakers. House Speaker Pro-Tem Rep. John Lovick, D-Mill Creek, cut their remarks short on the grounds that they were impugning the motives of their colleagues — a violation of official legislative decorum.
“We thought it was better to register our rejection of the whole process of the bill by simply refusing to vote on it,” said Graves. “What we wanted was to re-open the debate on it and have a 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, in reference to SEIU 775. “This whole bill is a tortured attempt to veil something that we’re not allowed to talk about now on the House floor.”
Rep. Lovick did not respond to a request for comment.
During the floor debate, House Democrats reiterated arguments that the legislation benefits home healthcare workers and their patients first and foremost.
“This bill is about patients. It’s about safety and it’s about taking care of our caregivers,” said Nicole Macri, D-Seattle. “Instead of handling the administration, the payroll functions, we outsource that to a private company and allow caregivers to do the real work that they need to do.”
On March 5, Gov. Inslee and Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson authored an editorial in The Tacoma News Tribune arguing that 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 SB 6199 who voted against it in the Senate, called on Gov. Inslee to veto it. He called the bill the most “secretive” and “corrupt” piece of legislation that he’s seen in his eight years in the Legislature.
In the Senate, one Republican, Sen. Mark Miloscia, R-Federal Way, voted for the legislation. Conversely, one Senate Democrat who caucuses with Republicans, Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, voted against the bill.
SEIU 775 has directed media inquiries to DSHS.