Public employee union pushes back on birthdates
Last updated 1/8/2021 at 2:12pm
The Washington State Supreme Court ruled late in 2019 that government employee birthdates are public information, but now public employee unions are pushing back and advocating for a reversal of that decision.
Mike Yestramski, President of the Washington Federation of State Employees, in an opinion circulated recently in a pro-union newsletter, urged union members to seek a legislative fix.
“Contact your legislators and ask them to support House Bill 1888, legislation that would revise our state’s outdated public disclosure law and keep your birthdate private,” Yestramski wrote.
Although Yestramski aims his argument at privacy concerns, not far below the surface is a fight between public employee unions and the Freedom Foundation, a conservative think tank that works aggressively to inform public employees about their rights to not join a union. In fact, it was a lawsuit between the two groups that resulted in the Supreme Court decision.
“We take intrusions into our private affairs, personal information, and personal safety very seriously,” Yestramski wrote. “We have made numerous attempts in the courts, including cases at all levels of the state court system, to curb these abuses of the Public Records Act — particularly by organizations desiring to harass public employees about their union membership.
“Groups like the Freedom Foundation misuse the provisions of the Public Records Act to gather public employees’ personal information and contact them in hopes of persuading them to give up their voices at work,” Yestramski wrote.
The Supreme Court considered that argument and ruled public employee birthdates are not confidential and can be disclosed in public records requests. The court issued its decision Oct. 24 in a split decision, 5 to 4.
“This case requires us to decide whether state employees have a protected privacy interest against disclosure of public records containing their birth dates associated with their names,” said Justice Debra Stephens, writing for the majority. “We conclude that the Public Records Act does not exempt these records from disclosure. Nor does Washington Constitution article I, section 7 preclude disclosure, given that names and birthdates are widely available in the public domain and that their disclosure here does not violate privacy rights.”
The case was brought by the Evergreen Freedom Foundation. The Washington Newspaper Publishers Association supported the filing in an amicus brief filed by Eric Stahl of Davis, Wright, Tremaine.
Public access advocates for years have argued that birthdates should not be confidential and are essential to the proper identification of people in databases and news stories. It is the single piece of information that separates people with common names.
Using birthdates to identify people actually protects individuals from being mistakenly identified, when, for example, someone with a common name is arrested on criminal charges. People in the neighborhood will know, that the 24- year-old suspect is not the same person as their 60-year-old neighbor, journalists argue.
Washington journalists often point toward stories where birthdates were used to identify school bus drivers who had convictions for driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.