Initiative 1501 subplot: Fight between union, conservative group

The measure would stiffen penalties for identify theft and consumer fraud against seniors or disabled citizens. Opponents say the real purpose is to change the state Public Records Act.

By Phuong Le

The Associated Press

SEATTLE — The ongoing fight between a powerful labor union and a conservative group has spilled over into Washington’s state election.

Initiative 1501 on the Nov. 8 ballot would stiffen penalties for identify theft and consumer fraud when seniors or disabled citizens are targeted.

But opponents of the measure said the real purpose is an attempt by Service Employees International Union Local 775 to change the state Public Records Act to prevent the release of members’ contact information to outside groups.

And a leading senior citizen advocacy group, AARP Washington, which is neutral on the measure, said Initiative 1501 isn’t likely to protect vulnerable adults from consumer fraud.

Union helped

SEIU 775, which represents about 44,000 independent state workers who provide in-home care, helped write the initiative and has bankrolled nearly all of the nearly $1.5 million raised by the campaign.

For the past two years, following a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, the Olympia-based Freedom Foundation has sought contact information of the union’s members so it can tell them they don’t have to pay union fees or dues. The Supreme Court ruled in an Illinois case that home health-care workers cannot be forced to pay union fees if they are not in a union.

SEIU 775 has sued in state court to prevent the release of such information under the public records law, but the courts so far have ruled against the union.

If approved, personal information of vulnerable individuals as well as their in-home caregivers could not be released to certain people or organizations who request it under the public records act. Such information could, however, be released to union representatives, the news media, as part of a court proceeding and in other cases.

“We have a reasonable expectation that it remains private, and it shouldn’t be given out to whoever wants it,” said Eva Gantala, of Monroe, who backs the measure. She provides care for her 35-year-old son who is developmentally disabled and said she doesn’t want his or her information released.

Opponents say the union is attempting to keep its members in the dark about their ability to opt out of paying union dues.

“It’s ridiculous and even scandalous for them to create an initiative and put it on the ballot, and caulk it in trying to protect seniors, when it really is all about preserving their membership due revenue,” said Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, who has given money to Freedom Foundation.

The measure claims to protect seniors from identify theft but the changes to identity theft laws are fairly minor, said Maxford Nelsen, labor policy director for the Freedom Foundation.

Adam Glickman, secretary treasurer of SEIU 775, defended the measure and said the union is obligated by the state to tell workers of their rights and it does that.

“Caregivers know their rights,” he said, adding that “those who don’t want to join the union don’t join the union.”

He said about 60 percent of caregivers live with their clients and there’s concern about exposing their information.

An August survey by independent pollster Stuart Elway showed the measure enjoying strong support with at least 70 percent of each group of Republicans, Democrats and independents in favor.

The Elway survey of 500 registered voters was conducted by phone Aug. 9-13. The margin of error was plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.

“This initiative enjoys strong popular support,” said Beth Lindsay, campaign director for Initiative 1501. “It’s a commonsense protection for seniors.”

The campaign has spent most of its money qualifying the measure for the ballot but has otherwise done little campaigning.

AARP Washington, meanwhile, is focused on passing state legislation with more aggressive measures to protect vulnerable adults from financial exploitation and abuse, spokesman Jason Erskine said.

One such bill would strengthen the punishment for people who mistreat adults and create a new crime of theft from a vulnerable adult with a longer statute of limitations.

“This is a very serious issue for seniors,” said Robby Stern, a volunteer with the Puget Sound Advocates for Retirement Action, who backs the measure.

He cited the case of his 91-year-old father-in-law, who was targeted by a phone scam in which the caller posed as a grandson and claimed to need help getting out of jail.

“From our perspective as seniors, we made an effort to do something legislatively but were not able to get it through,” Stern said. “This is about protecting seniors and vulnerable people from the fraudsters that are out there.”

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