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State workers union sues DSHS, claims ‘effort to privatize child welfare’

Sat., May 7, 2011, midnight

The largest union representing Washington state workers has filed a lawsuit in Thurston County Superior Court seeking to stop the Department of Social and Health Services from privatizing child welfare.

DSHS maintains it is merely implementing a law that requires the department’s Children’s Administration to consolidate its numerous state contracts based on performance standards and measurable outcomes.

In 2009, the Legislature enacted House Bill 2106, mandating increased accountability in the state child welfare system.

The law has two parts: It requires the department to convert its roughly 1,600 child and family services contracts into performance-based contracts. Secondly, it calls for a pilot project to be completed and evaluated by 2015 to determine whether child welfare is best handled by state or private agencies.

In its lawsuit filed Thursday, the Washington Federation of State Employees, which represents about 40,000 state workers, including at DSHS, claims that the way the department is consolidating contracts is rendering the pilot project irrelevant.

In its request for proposals from private contractors, the state has called for “a lead agency model” for delivery of child welfare services.

The union says this exceeds the law’s mandate by seeking proposals for contracts from private organizations to perform functions now done by state case managers represented by WFSE, who would be displaced.

“We have identified the elements in the request for proposal that are very clearly case management that they are contracting out prematurely,” said Jeanine Livingston, WFSE contract compliance manager. “This is a very clear effort to privatize child welfare.”

Because union employees have not been allowed to compete for these contracts, the lawsuit said, “DSHS has refused to bargain in good faith with the WFSE.”

Last month, the union filed an unfair labor practices complaint with the Public Employment Relations Commission over the same complaints alleged in the lawsuit.

Children’s Administration spokeswoman Sherry Hill said she could not comment on the lawsuit, but said the agency is complying with requirements of the new law.

“We are consolidating and converting existing contracts,” Hill said.

The lawsuit asks the court to enjoin the state from contracting out case management services during the litigation and until the unfair labor practices complaint is decided.

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