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It's union versus the right for Initiative 1501 (senior privacy)

Brittany Johnson says the Freedom Foundation contacted her by mail to tell her she didn't have to be a member of SEIU. She said it was never clear how the right-wing organization got her information, and she wants her privacy.
KUOW Photo/Carolyn Adolph
Brittany Johnson says the Freedom Foundation contacted her by mail to tell her she didn't have to be a member of SEIU. She said it was never clear how the right-wing organization got her information, and she wants her privacy.

UPDATE 10/31/16, 2 p.m. 

On Friday the Washington state Attorney General’s Office said it filed a complaint in Thurston County Superior Court against the Freedom Foundation for campaign finance violations. The attorney general specifically said Freedom Foundation had failed to report its spending to oppose Initiative 1501.

Original Story

This fall, Washington voters will consider Initiative 1501, a measure to protect seniors, vulnerable adults and their caregivers. What could be controversial about that?

But curiously, there aren’t many senior advocacy groups endorsing it. The union behind it says it’s about protecting vulnerable people’s identities. But opponents say it’s a smokescreen for a union that really wants to protect its power.

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) wrote the initiative, promotes it and is bankrolling it.

Most of the initiative talks about protecting personal information by increasing the penalty for identity theft. It would also change the state’s public records law to bar the release of information about caregivers.

For several years now, AARP Washington has been educating its members about fraud and identity theft. It has supported efforts to protect seniors. But when it came to Initiative 1501, AARP chose to stay neutral. 

“We think it neither hurts the protection of vulnerable adults nor does it particularly help them,” said Doug Shadel, state director of AARP Washington. Shadel said Washington already has a strong identity theft statute.

Initiative 1501 may restrict public access to caregivers’ information, but in reality, said Shadel, that’s not how identity thieves generally operate.  “They do not fill out public records requests to get their victims. That’s not how it works. What they will do is they will steal your mail, they will hire other drug addicts to go out and break into your car and get your personal information. And that is how identity theft happens.”

Shadel said Initiative 1501 is narrowly focused on identity theft when elder abuse and exploitation in general is a bigger problem.

David Lord, Policy Director of Disability Rights Washington agrees. And often, the perpetrator is not a stranger, but someone who’s familiar. “Identity theft is less of the issue than the exploitation that happens and the theft that happens from people that actually know the individual, either as a home care worker or even a family member.”

Both Lord and Shadel said seniors and people with disabilities are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. They prefer to direct their efforts at a bill that’s likely to be re-introduced in Olympia next session. That bill is comprehensive and would help prosecutors when going after people who prey on vulnerable adults.

But depending on who you ask, I-1501 isn’t about protecting the elderly. It’s about a longstanding fight between the SEIU, which wrote Initiative 1501, and the Freedom Foundation.

The Freedom Foundation is an opponent of big government and big unions.

For years the SEIU has been automatically getting fresh members because states have been treating home care workers as union employees. States like Washington even automatically deduct caregivers’ union dues. But in 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that these workers have a choice and can opt out of the union.

The Freedom Foundation rejoiced. Since that court decision, the Olympia-based group has been trying to contact every caregiver in Washington state to tell them they don’t need to pay union dues.

Those dues add up to about $600 a year. According to Washington’s Employment Security Department, the median caregiver salary is about $12 an hour, or $26,800 a year in metropolitan Seattle.

Initiative 1501’s changes to the state’s public records law would make it harder to contact caregivers by closing a loophole that restricts most caregivers’ personal information, except their names and GPS locations.

“This is just a smokescreen," said Max Nelson of the Freedom Foundation, based in Olympia. “Initiative 1501 for SEIU is really a last-ditch effort to prevent these providers from learning about their rights.”

The SEIU does not deny that it wants to stop union members from being contacted.

“At the end of the day, with those guys, it’s about union-busting,” said Brittany Johnson, a home care worker and leader for SEIU in Renton. She was referring to the Freedom Foundation. “But at the end of the day when it’s about us, it’s about protecting our families.”

Freedom Foundation has been hunting down all the information it can get on caregivers in the state, so it can contact them directly. 

“Now that caregivers have a meaningful choice, it’s up to them,” Nelson said. “They need to be aware of their rights. They need to be aware of how to exercise them.”

Johnson said she was contacted shortly after she moved to her first apartment.

“I hadn’t even received bills yet,” she said. “And there was this letter from the Freedom Foundation and they were telling me about this union. Who are these people?”

Johnson said she received a lot of mail from Freedom Foundation, which made her wonder how they had discovered where she lived – and so quickly.

“How did they know I’m a caregiver?” she said. “Later on, my clients received phone calls asking did I work for them, am I a caregiver? I thought: 'Who are you?'”

The SEIU is spending $1.5 million to support it. Freedom Foundation isn’t spending anything to fight the initiative. According to Washington's Public Disclosure Commission, no one is. However, Freedom Foundation and SEIU continue to spar in the courts over the repercussions of the Supreme Court decision.

Johnson said she believes SEIU is a target because people fear it will become more powerful.

“The great thing about SEIU that a lot of people fear is that we’re the Service Employees International Union, not just caregivers. Service employees. So any service where a person works and that they provide for another human being – we are there having the back of those people. And big corporations don’t want that.”

Initiative 1501 is asking voters to help protect vulnerable people in care. But advocates say it’s too narrow to actually work.

The initiative is is also asking voters to pick a side between a union and its adversary. And in the middle are caregivers and the fate of their personal information.