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Conservative group requests personal information of state employees

Conservative group the Freedom Foundation has made a public records request that includes the personal information of state employees. (AP)

State workers are raising deep concern after learning a prominent anti-union group is seeking their personal information, including their birth dates, worrying it could lead to widespread privacy violations and identity theft.

Complaints began pouring into various unions representing state workers over the last month after the Olympia-based Freedom Foundation filed public records requests for information about thousands of workers.

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Tim Welch is the director of public affairs for the Washington Federation of Public Employees, which represents everyone from home health care workers to the insurance commissioner’s office.

“Our members are outraged. They do not understand why this organization needs that kind of information. It violates their privacy, it violates rules of common decency. We just don’t know why they want to do it,” Welch said.

Freedom Foundation members are clear about why they want to do it. Maxford Nelson, Director of Labor Policy for the conservative group, says they are building a database of state workers to be able to contact them about their rights to opt out of paying for the union’s political activities, something he says most represented workers don’t realize they can do.

“In many cases unions will obscure the information, they’ll make it difficult to pay the reduced amount. They’ll require that your request must be submitted during this arbitrary window. I’ve seen them as short as 10 days every year,” Nelson said.

It’s the latest move by the group, which successfully helped a number of homecare and childcare providers who work part time for the state to resign from the union and not pay dues.

“The point is when informed of their rights and given the option and a practical means of exercising them, at least in some cases, at least half of these union members have decided to leave the union,” Nelson said.

And Nelson said they need birth dates to help identify individual union members who might share the same name.

But the unions call it a gross violation of privacy rights and have sued to stop the release of the information.

Welch argues it’s also an invitation to identity theft.

“You want to get any information on anybody, you get the birth date, and you can find out just about anything, and that is why our members are so outraged,” Welch said.

But the precedent is not on the union’s side.

State law says specifically that birth dates of state workers are disclosable and not exempt from privacy statutes.

The Legislature was clear in its intent to not exempt birth dates, and unions have no legal grounds to stand on, said Toby Nixon, head of the Washington Coalition for Open Government.

Much of it stems from things like elections, dating back to the hotly contested governor’s race. With only about 100 votes separating Christine Gregoire and Dino Rossi, every vote was reviewed and birth dates were one of the only ways to verify identities when there were duplicate names, Nixon said.

So even though the unions have asked for a temporary restraining order, the law is not on their side.

Nelson says the union members have nothing to fear.

“We have no interest whatsoever in violating people’s privacy or committing identity theft or anything the union is kind of stirring people about. We’re committed to following the law and making sure we’re not engaging in anything inappropriate,” Nelson said.

Nelson says one of the interesting ironies about this fight is that terms of some collective bargaining agreements such as SEIU 775’s terms for home health care workers often require the state to disclose personal information including social security numbers.

A hearing is set for Friday in Thurston Count Superior Court and a judge is expected to rule the same day.

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