The State Worker

This state worker wants to quit her union — but it won’t let her go

Union fee case about ‘freeloading,’ Sacramento mayor says

Sacramento Mayor Darrel Steinberg, a former union attorney, rallied SEIU 1000 members at an event timed to the Janus vs. AFSCME Supreme Court case.
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Sacramento Mayor Darrel Steinberg, a former union attorney, rallied SEIU 1000 members at an event timed to the Janus vs. AFSCME Supreme Court case.

A new lawsuit from a University of California health worker says her union won’t let her quit.

Liliana Hernandez, who works in patient billing for UC Irvine’s health system, argues in her lawsuit that AFSCME Local 3299 is still collecting dues from her despite her repeated attempts to separate. And she wants to kill a state law that requires government to defer to union rules on such matters.

She and her attorneys contend the slow response from her union and her employer violates the Supreme Court’s June decision in Janus vs. AFSCME banning public-sector labor organizations from collecting any kind of fee from workers unless they consent to it.

The court, in a 5-4 decision, held that compulsory charges known as “fair share” fees undermine the First Amendment rights of employees who don’t want to join unions.

“The union’s refusal to honor Ms. Hernandez’s resignation efforts and its continued garnishment of Ms. Hernandez’s wages violate the Speech Clause and the Supreme Court’s ruling in Janus,” the complaint says. “Janus holds that public-employee unions are forbidden to collect money from a nonmember’s wages unless the employee ‘clearly and affirmatively consents before any money is taken.’”

Hernandez’s case, filed on Friday in federal court in Sacramento, is the latest in a string of lawsuits demanding that California public employee unions return fees to workers since the court ruling in Janus. She is also seeking to have the union reimburse her for dues she has paid since she began working for UC, contending that she was misled into believing she had no other choice.

“This money was always the plaintiff’s and not the defendant’s,” said Will Swaim, president of the California Policy Center, a libertarian think-tank that has been working to help public-sector workers quit their unions. “The case is really about recouping money that was paid.”

One of Hernandez’s attorneys is former Texas Solicitor General Jonathan Mitchell, who The New York Times in July connected to lawsuits in six other states requesting that public-sector unions return money to people who did not want to join them.

She’s also represented by Sacramento lawyer Bradley Benbrook, who did not return a call seeking comment.

AFSCME Local 3299, which represents some 24,000 UC patient care and service workers, also did not respond to requests for comment on Tuesday.

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University of California spokeswoman Claire Doan said the system has stopped deducting fair share fees from employees who were paying those charges but were not union members. Hernandez was a full member of AFSCME Local 3299, and is still paying dues, according to her lawsuit.

Over the past two months, groups of public-sector workers and attorneys from right-leaning advocacy groups have filed claims seeking back-dated fair share fees from state government’s SEIU Local 1000 and California local government’s SEIU Local 521.

Hernandez’s case goes further by seeking to void the California state law that instructs schools, cities and state agencies to follow union rules when employees attempt to join or quit a labor organization. The California state Legislature enhanced that law with a measure it placed in the state budget.

The Legislature last week sent another bill to Gov. Jerry Brown that would help unions avoid damages in lawsuits like Hernandez’s and the cases that targeted SEIU locals. Senate Bill 846 would prevent public employees from attempting to recover dues or fees they paid to their unions before the Janus decision, when these fees were legal under state and federal law. Brown has not yet acted on the bill.

California public sector unions tend to let workers join them any time, but they often restrict when members can separate from the organizations to a few weeks each year.

Union advocates say that limitation ensures that workers don’t sign up for representation only when they have a problem with their employer. Otherwise, union leaders say, someone could enroll in a union, benefit from union resources and then quit as soon as his or her dispute with management is resolved.

UC Berkeley law professor Catherine Fisk likened the membership agreements to health insurance policies workers join during open-enrollment periods. The policies generally commit an employee to a plan until the next open enrollment period.

“The reason for that is that so people don’t sign up for health insurance when they get sick or when hey need surgery or when they’re expecting a baby, and then get rid of the insurance the minute they’ve gotten the benefit of the benefits,” she said.

“What this lawsuit and others like it are attacking are rules that unions adopted to prevent people from opting into the benefits only when they need them, like when they face a discipline and want the union to handle the grievance, and then opt out,” she continued. “A union can’t survive that, and neither can an insurance company.”

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