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A dozen protesters affiliated with the Service Employees International Union occupied the state Office of Administrative Hearings in Vancouver and staged a sit-down strike at closing time Tuesday to protest recent state cuts to in-home care.
Five of the demonstrators chose to be arrested after repeated warnings from police. They were taken into custody on suspicion of misdemeanor criminal trespassing.
They said they were protesting cuts to work hours for in-home care services paid for by the state Department of Social and Health Services. Effective Feb. 1, the cut of eight hours per month affected Medicaid clients who live 45 minutes away from central services such as grocery stores or receive off-site laundry services from their home care provider. The cut means home care providers lose work hours, which affects their overall income.
“DSHS did this with an emergency rule, which means they didn’t go through the Legislature,” said Benton Strong, a spokesman for SEIU Healthcare. SEIU represents home care workers paid by the state.
“They didn’t tell the Legislature; they didn’t tell the union,” Strong said. “We found out after clients received letters that their hours were being cut.”
DSHS communications director Thomas Shapley did not immediately respond to a call to his cellphone at 7 p.m. Tuesday requesting comment.
The protest began at noon outside the office at 5300 MacArthur Blvd. Some time before closing, the protesters abandoned their outdoor demonstration and moved inside the small lobby of the office. When the office closed, the protesters refused to leave the lobby in defiance of office employee and police officer requests shortly after 5 p.m. The protesters circled a pile of laundry they dumped in the center of the lobby as they sang lyrics they’d made up to go along with songs such as “Happy Birthday to You.”
“Dirty laundry to you, dirty laundry to you, dirty laundry, DSHS, dirty laundry because of you,” they sang in unison. The singing was interchanged with chanting and drumming.
“These hours were cut in secret,” said Sharon Kitchel-Perdue, a home care worker from Olympia who came to Vancouver for the protest. Kitchel-Perdue said five out of 12 protesters were from Clark County.
About 16 police cars from Washington State Patrol and the Vancouver Police Department responded to the scene. The officers arrested protesters about an hour after their response and after multiple warnings. They escorted each protester out of the lobby one by one to a back door, where police cars were parked.
Vancouver resident Gayle Sevier, 54, was one of those arrested. She is paid by the state to care for her 89-year-old mother, Clara Sevier. Her state-paid hours have been reduced from 108 hours per month in 2011 to 100 hours in February because Gayle Sevier washes Clara Sevier’s laundry at a laundry business away from the 89-year-old’s home at Vintage Vancouver, an independent-living retirement center. Gayle Sevier lives at the center with her mother. She said she has had to reduce her grocery budget since her hours were cut. Her mother’s meals are paid for with food stamps.
In Washington, the median pay for a state-employed home care worker is about $10.40 per hour, said Linda Lee, a Vancouver caretaker on the board of the SEIU local chapter.
Those arrested were to be booked into jail and expected to be released, said Vancouver police Sgt. Kevin Hatley.