Back in 1988, voters approved a ballot measure boosting Washington's minimum wage. Buried in the text of Initiative 518 was a gift to domestic...

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Back in 1988, voters approved a ballot measure boosting Washington’s minimum wage. Buried in the text of Initiative 518 was a gift to domestic and agricultural workers: They would no longer be exempt from the state’s minimum wage law and could qualify for overtime pay.


Seventeen years later, that ballot measure is being called into question, and by extension the pay status of thousands of home workers.


In dismissing an overtime suit brought by a home caregiver in Ellensburg, Kittitas County, Superior Court Judge Michael E. Cooper on Monday said the ballot measure — or at least the part that referred to domestic workers — was invalid.


Judge sees flaw


The reason was a flaw in the title, which read, “Shall the state minimum wage increase from $2.30 to $3.85 and include agricultural workers?”


The ballot title didn’t mention domestic workers, a job classification addressed deeper in the measure’s text.


William Simmons, the attorney representing the caregiver who brought the suit, said the court’s decision could have far-reaching consequences.


“That means that ever since 1988 domestic-service workers have not been covered by the overtime laws,” he said.


Melanie Morin, 33, said she worked up to 60 hours a week bathing, clothing and feeding an elderly stroke victim, as well as managing a small crew that aided the woman 24 hours day.


She earned $12 an hour. When she asked the patient’s husband, employer Clarence Harrell, about being paid time and a half, he said she wasn’t eligible, according to court documents.


Morin was asking for $11,871 in unpaid overtime. Simmons, her lawyer, plans to appeal.


The state Department of Labor & Industries, which enforces wage-and-hour laws, was unaware of the court ruling, or what effect, if any, it would have on the state’s domestic workers, a job category that includes everything from full-time housekeepers to full-time gardeners.


The state does not consider caregivers as domestics, however, said spokeswoman Elaine Fischer.


Labor backing


Backed by labor interests, Initiative 518 was approved overwhelmingly by voters in 1988, setting the tone for a bolder move in 1997, when voters decided to tie the state’s minimum wage to inflation.


David Rolf, president of Local 775 of the Service Employees International Union, representing long-term caregivers, said his group would fight any effort to return home workers to exempt status.


“If there’s a law that’s unconstitutional because it was badly written we’ll go back, we’ll write it right, and we’ll fix the problem,” he said.


Shirleen Holt: 206-464-8316 or sholt@seattletimes.com