OLYMPIA — Washington Democratic state lawmakers are again considering legislation to exempt the birth dates of public employees from the state’s transparency laws.
The latest attempt comes after the state Supreme Court in a 5-4 ruling last fall declared that public-employee birth dates are, in fact, disclosable records.
That court decision found that neither the transparency law nor the state constitution exempted those birth dates from being disclosed. Advocates of government transparency considered the ruling a win, including news organizations, which use dates of birth in their reporting to confirm the identities of people.
But public-employee unions, who donate big dollars to Washington Democrats, are arguing that the transparency law puts their workers at risk of identity theft and harassment from people who can request their information.
And several unions have been frustrated with a conservative group using public-records requests to get employees’ personal information to contact the workers and tell they don’t have to pay union dues.
It was that conflict between unions and the Freedom Foundation that led to the legal challenge and state Supreme Court ruling.
On Tuesday, lawmakers discussed House Bill 1888 in a public hearing of the House State Government and Tribal Relations Committee. Sponsored by Rep. Zack Hudgins, D-Tukwila, it would shield employee birth dates and also payroll deduction of those employees’ dependents.
Several members of news organizations — including two editors from The Seattle Times, Managing Editor Ray Rivera and Investigations Editor Jonathan Martin — testified against the proposal, saying it would harm the ability to report stories.
The editors noted that birth dates of public employees have been used by The Seattle Times to ensure accurate identification in reporting on stories. These were among the examples cited:
- That at least 98 school employees fired or reprimanded for sexual misconduct but continued to teach or coach.
- Former Seattle Mayor Ed Murray had been investigated in Oregon for allegations he sexually abused a foster child.
- A prison medical director with the state Department of Corrections was fired after the deaths of inmates who received inadequate medical care.
Juli Bunting, of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, also spoke out against HB 1888, saying the disclosure of birth dates alone would not result in identity theft.
Bunting, the coalition’s executive director, told lawmakers that she hoped “that you would reconsider the move to water down the Public Records Act.”
Hudgins said he wants to find a way with his legislation to make sure news organizations can still report on such stories, while making sure public employees aren’t harmed.
“I think that’s the balance that we’re going to try and find,” he said.
Kati Thompson, a worker at the state Employee Security Department, said lawmakers need to pass the bill so workers won’t get harassed like she has been.
“And people who have been victims of domestic violence or other violent crimes, who have testified against their rapists at trial and happen to work for the state now, we don’t have any way to track all those people and keep their data safe,” Thompson said.
“We are public servants, we are not state property,” said Thompson, who is listed as a member of the Washington Federation of State Employees on the union’s website. “We are not owned by the state, we deserve to have a life, we deserve to be safe.”
In 2018, Democratic lawmakers attempted similar legislation to exempt public-employee birth dates.
At Tuesday’s hearing, lawmakers heard another proposal by Hudgins, House Bill 2397, which would shield from disclosure personal-financial statements now submitted by legislative staffers. Those statements are now public records.