Foundation seeking names, birthdates of hundreds of thousands of government workers

By Jim Camden

The Spokesman-Review

An anti-union organization is seeking public record information about hundreds of thousands of state and local public employees as part of its ongoing efforts to convince union government workers they should drop their memberships and stop paying dues.

Workers for government agencies as well as public colleges and universities are being notified by their human resource offices or other administrators they have until Jan. 2 to go to court try to block the pending Public Records Act request from the Freedom Foundation.

Maxford Nelsen, the foundation’s director of labor policy, called it a routine request to update employee records the organization keeps.

“We regularly make requests for public employee information,” Nelsen said.

The foundation uses the records to locate union employees and send them information on how to opt out of their unions.

But some public employees are upset, particularly about the request for birthdates, which they say can be used to get other personal information on the internet.

“I don’t think, just because I work for the state of Washington, that I surrender my privacy,” said Brenda Martinson, a shop steward at Spokane Community College. “A few of my co-workers are survivors of domestic violence” and are worried that information could allow a former abuser to find them.

In this particular request, the foundation is seeking the full name, employer, annual compensation, birthdate and retirement system in which each worker currently participates from the state Department of Retirement Systems. The department handles pensions for state workers and many city and county public employees, which means the foundation can avoid making individual requests for information from the various departments and agencies.

The foundation has made previous requests for the names and other public information about government employees after court decisions that allow public employees in jobs covered by a union to opt out of membership and not be forced to pay “agency fees” for certain services the union provides.

Last fall, the state Supreme Court ruled narrowly in a case pitting the foundation against the state’s public employees unions that the full birthdates held in government records are not automatically exempt from disclosure. The five-member majority ruled birthdates are public and must be released unless they involve employees exempted because of certain occupations, such as law enforcement. In those cases, only the day of birth is released.

A four-member minority criticized the decision as making it easy to get information used by identity thieves.

The foundation regularly files new requests for public employee information found in government records as a way of updating its lists. Some of the data is from requests that resulted in court battles and take years to resolve, Nelsen said. The information was current for the time the public records request was filed, but may be two or three years old by the time it is released.

The request for records from the Department of Retirement Systems covers at least 200,000 employees and maybe as many 300,000, he said. It will also include managers and supervisors who aren’t in unions, and the foundation will try to separate them based on job titles or descriptions.

In the end, the records will be used for the same thing the foundation has done for several years: trying to get members of public employee unions to drop their membership. It’s one of the foundation’s key objectives, and a person on hold after calling the organization’s Olympia office gets a pitch to leave the union while waiting for a staff member to pick up.

Martinson said she has received multiple emails from the foundation telling her how she can opt out her dues and quit the union.

“Most of that stuff goes into spam,” she said. Some of it is sent to her work email, she added. “As a taxpayer, that irritates me, because it’s not something we should be spending our time on.”

Most information, like the names, positions and salaries of government employees, has long been considered a releasable public record. The Office of Financial Management compiles a searchable list with that information and posts it online every year.

But the recent Supreme Court ruling on birthdates could prompt legislation for a special exemption to block that information from public employee lists. Both Nelsen and public employees union officials said they expect that to come up in the 2020 legislative session.