By Josh Kelety
WNPA Olympia News Bureau

House Democrats passed a controversial bill that restructures how home health care workers contract with the state despite all 48 Republican members refusing to vote on it.

The bill, SB 6199, which was requested by the state Department of Social and Human Services, would reclassify roughly 35,000 home health care workers across Washington as private employees by contracting them through a third party vendor. It would also create a board made up of representatives from Governor Jay Inslee’s office, DSHS, and SEIU 775 — the union that currently represents the workers — to set their pay rates.

Democratic lawmakers and state officials argue that the legislation will simplify the state’s relationship with home health care workers, reduce administrative paperwork, and improve patient care.

However, the bill, which originated in the Senate and is sponsored by four Democrats and one Republican, faced fierce criticism from both Senate and House Republicans, who argue that it is a veiled attempt to allow SEIU 775 to force workers to pay union fees.

Specifically, critics argue that by reclassifying home health care workers as private employees, SEIU 775 can legally demand that they pay union fees, despite a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court ruling — Harris v. Quinn — that public employees can opt-out of fees.

“In 2014 the U.S. Supreme Court in Harris versus Quinn said that Medicaid-paid providers do not have to pay union dues,” said Rep. Joe Schmick, R-Colfax, during the March 1 floor debate on the bill in the House. “This bill is a big step backwards,” he said, adding that it will make workers pay dues even if they don’t want to.

As evidence that the bill is specifically serving union interests, Republicans have pointed to SEIU 775’s campaign contributions to numerous state Democrats and a 2014 memo authored by staff at the state Office of Financial Management. The memo states that, in response to the 2014 court ruling, SEIU 775 President David Rolf asked Gov. Inslee for legislation that would restructure the state’s contracts with home health care workers.

“This is nothing more than a payback to a union,” said Rep. Joyce McDonald, R-Puyallup, at the March 1 floor debate of the bill.

After passing the state Senate last month, the legislation was passed out of the House on March 1 on an unorthodox 50-0 vote, with all 48 Republican members refusing to vote. They were eventually recorded as “absent.”

Rep. Paul Graves, R-Fall City, said in a phone interview that House Republicans declined to vote because they were cut off several times during floor debate. “We thought it was better to register our rejection of the whole process of the bill by simply refusing to vote on it,” said Graves. “What we wanted was to re-open the debate on it and have an honest debate.”

“This is about one thing and one thing only,” said Rep. Vincent Buys, R-Lynden, in reference to SEIU 775. “This whole bill is a tortured attempt to veil something that we’re not allowed to talk about now on the House floor.”

During the floor debate, House Democrats reiterated arguments that the legislation benefits home health care workers and their patients first and foremost.

“This bill is about patients. It’s about safety and it’s about taking care of our caregivers,” said Nicole Macri, D-Seattle. “Instead of handling the administration, the payroll functions, we outsource that to a private company and allow caregivers to do the real work that they need to do.”