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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Senate passes plan to set up new way to manage home care workers

OLYMPIA – In session Saturday, the Senate debates a bill to change the way some home care workers are managed and paid. (Jim Camden / The Spokesman-Review)

OLYMPIA – A fight over how the state should deal with people who care for some of Washington’s oldest, sickest and least able-bodied residents roiled the Senate during a late-night session at midweek, delaying until Saturday the first-round approval of a new system to manage them.

The argument pits Republicans and one of their strongest allies, the Freedom Foundation – an established foe of public-sector unions – against the Democrats and one of theirs, the powerful Service Employees International Union.

It kept the Senate in session past midnight Wednesday over a bill that would change how home health care workers, known as individual providers, are managed and paid. Right now that’s handled by the state’s mega-agency, the Department of Social and Health Services, but the numbers of IPs have grown in the past decade to about 35,000, a level where the department management will also have to grow or an outside entity be set up to handle the tasks.

A Senate bill would set up such an entity, and move those workers to the service employees union, which would negotiate their future pay and benefits.

The foundation – and many Republicans – do not think a union should be handed thousands of new dues-paying members on a silver platter.

The bill had Democrats and Republicans reversing their standard positions and accusing each other of inconsistency on the issue of contracting with private entities for government services. Republicans, usually big fans of “contracting out,” don’t like this system; Democrats, generally not supportive of such arrangements, do.

The bill would create a new system for determining wages and benefits that is similar in some respects to the way state employee contracts are negotiated. It’s not identical, but close enough that Republicans long opposed to the existing system don’t like the prospect of a new one.

Such a system was mentioned in a 2014 confidential memo that Senate Republicans cited as part of their opposition. To respond to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on government employees being able to opt out of unions, the state could “contract with an outside entity to run the home care system, making IPs private-sector employees,” SEIU officials suggested during a meeting.

This, to Senate Republicans, was proof the union is pulling the strings for the bill. Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, called it “an inappropriate sweetheart deal that’s trying to be muscled through by the governor and the union … a straight-up giveaway.”

Senate Majority Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, said she was surprised by the resistance from Republicans to a bill she described as “making sure our workers are taken care of … at this point in time, this is the best way to go.”

Republicans proposed some 45 amendments and used a parliamentary maneuver to delay a final vote on the bill to Wednesday or Thursday. Democrats scheduled a Saturday session when they were sure of having all their members for a close vote.

The controversy caught Gov. Jay Inslee a bit flat-footed Thursday morning. He had called a press conference to talk about other issues, including the end to net pens for Atlantic salmon and the virtues of a carbon tax. The first several questions from reporters were about this home care workers bill, which is covered in his budget and requested by one of his departments. He didn’t know it well enough to comment immediately on the details, was Inslee’s less-than-muscular response.

Later in the day, Inslee’s staff members better versed on the issue said the system being proposed is similar in many respects to ones used in 19 other states. It would be a way to keep DSHS from growing to oversee thousands of IPs, they said.

As for the “smoking gun” memo, it involved the Office of Financial Management and the Labor Relations Office, which handles contract negotiations with state employees, not the governor’s office staff, Inslee Chief of Staff David Postman said. It was marked confidential but likely released on a standard Public Records Act, which the governor’s office routinely does – a not too subtle jab at legislators who are in court trying to keep their documents secret.

“It’s no surprise that we worked with the people who do the work,” he said.

The 3 1/2 year-old memo wasn’t part of the conversation that led to the drafting of the bill, Postman said. While it does contain a suggestion from the SEIU to contract with an outside entity, there are eight other suggestions from the union that aren’t part of the bill.

Although the memo did make a brief appearance during the Senate debate Saturday, the tone of both sides was generally calmer than the previous session. Republicans complained about the cost of dues the home care workers would face, the fact they aren’t guaranteed an up or down vote on being part of the union and the lack of transparency in the way their state-paid wages would be set.

Democrats said it was a way to continue some of the best home care in the country and that as union members the workers would have a say in the dues they pay. The board that oversees the system and the wages negotiated would have four legislators – one from each caucus and each chamber – providing the kind of transparency and participation Republicans have said is missing from the way state employee contracts are negotiated.

But they’re nonvoting positions, Republicans countered.

Still, there was a “marked difference” with Wednesday night’s debate, said Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib, who presides over the Senate. “Not all of us were at our best” in the previous session, he added.

In the end, the bill passed with a one-vote cushion 26-21, and was sent to the House.