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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Partisan Battle Erupts Over SEIU-Backed Homecare Bill In Olympia

Austin Jenkins
Northwest News Network
Republican state Senators Joe Fain, left, and John Braun speak to reporters the morning after late-night debate on a controversial home health care worker bill.

A fiery partisan battle has erupted in Olympia over a union-backed measure involving homecare workers. Underlying the fight is whether these workers should be able to opt out of their union.

The debate led to tense moments on the floor of the Washington Senate late Wednesday night.

When majority Democrats brought SB 6199 up for debate Wednesday evening they knew they were in for a long fight. Minority Republicans had introduced dozens of amendments. What ensued was a several hour amendment-a-thon that stretched past midnight.

“The more we dig into this bill tonight, the more it stinks,” Republican Doug Ericksen said in the wee hours of the morning. “This bill would stink at one in the morning, it would stink at one in the afternoon, it would stink at 10 in the morning. So I don’t really care what time we run it, how dark it is outside, but it stinks, badly.”

So what would the bill do? It would privatize Washington’s homecare workforce—these are the people who care for the disabled and elderly in their homes. Often it’s family members caring for family members. Backers say privatization would streamline management of this growing workforce.

But Republicans insist this bill is about something else—doing an end-run around a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision that allows homecare workers to opt out of union representation.

“And they deserve a choice,” Republican John Braun said. “The Supreme Court thought they deserve a choice and our actions here tonight attempt to take that choice away.”

The union that represents homecare workers in Washington is Service Employees International Union 775—a major political contributor to Washington Democrats. But Senate Majority Leader Sharon Nelson rejected the idea that she and her fellow Democrats are doing the bidding of a close ally.

“I’m taking a look at making sure that our workers who are taking care of the most vulnerable folks in this state can continue operating and we believe at this point in time, this is the best way to go,” she said.

Instead Nelson suggests Republicans are serving the interests of the conservative Freedom Foundation, a group that’s been working to disenroll homecare workers from SEIU.

In a statement, the Freedom Foundation said Democrats are trying to force homecare workers who’ve left SEIU back into the union. SEIU declined to comment and referred questions to the Department of Social and Health Services, the agency that requested the legislation.

Senate Democrats say they plan to pass the bill later this week. 

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."