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Lawsuit Claims State Caregivers Are Prevented From Leaving Their Union

"pak_hogan_0017.JPG" by SEIU775 licensed under CC by 2.0

A conservative think tank claims in a class-action lawsuit that some home caregivers paid by Washington state want to leave their union but can't.

The Freedom Foundation, based in Olympia, filed the lawsuit Thursday in federal court in Tacoma.

The group claims some caregivers have written to Service Employees International Union 775 and the state expressing a desire to leave the union -- but the state keeps taking union dues from their paychecks. 

Service Employees International Union 775, commonly known as SEIU 775, represents about 35,000 caregivers who are paid through the state's Medicaid program to tend to elderly and disabled people in their homes. A union representative did not respond to requests for comment.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and the state's acting director of social and health services, Patricia Lashway, are also named as defendants in the lawsuit. Inslee's office declined to comment.

The lawsuit names eight caregivers who say they are stuck in the union, but claims many more are in the same situation. It asks for the return of union dues to caregivers who have tried to leave SEIU 775.

James Abernathy, an attorney for the Freedom Foundation, said the state automatically takes 3.2 percent of caregivers' wages from their paychecks and sends it to SEIU 775. He said the union dues amount to about $600 a year for the average caregiver. 

Abernathy said the lawsuit "seeks to force SEIU to honor providers' constitutional rights because the state has refused to as well. If the state would do it then these plaintiffs wouldn't have to bring this case." 

The Freedom Foundation has fought a string of legal battles against Washington unions in recent years. The group has campaigned to inform public-sector workers of their ability to opt out of union membership -- a right established in a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision.

A measure on the ballot this election, Initiative 1501, is tied to a dispute between the Freedom Foundation and SEIU 775 over the release of caregivers' personal information.

If passed, the initiative would prevent the state from releasing names and other information about caregivers to the public. The Freedom Foundation is seeking the information as it sends out mailers informing caregivers of their ability to leave SEIU 775.

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.