HARRISBURG — An anti-union group is challenging a state agency for refusing to release the home addresses of government employees and retirees, in an open records law dispute that has workers clamoring for their right to privacy.
The Pennsylvanians for Union Reform, led by Simon Campbell, requested on Aug. 23 the names and home mailing addresses for all members of the State Employees’ Retirement System, or SERS, which includes nearly 230,000 members and retirees.
SERS partially granted the request on Sept. 30, when the agency released the home addresses of nearly 35,000 members. But the union refused to release addresses for the rest, citing exemptions for security and other reasons.
Campbell argues that the agency’s decision to withhold so many addresses violates the state’s Right-to-Know Law, and has appealed their partial denial of his request to the Office of Open Records.
“The government and the unions, they don’t want public employees to know about who Pennsylvanians for Union Reform is, what we’re standing for,” Campbell said. “They would rather dumb down their own employees and keep them scared as opposed to us educating them what we’re advocating for.”
The Office of Open Records will ultimately decide whether SERS has to release more addresses.
“The burden is on SERS to make the case as to why the records shouldn’t be released,” Office of Open Records spokesman Nathan Byerly said. “We’ll take a look at all of it, and make the final determination.”
Union leaders vehemently oppose the release of the remaining addresses.
“The motive of this isn’t to send you a birthday card,” said David Fillman, president of the local chapter of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “The motive is to really capture as many people as possible, and (Campbell) is an anti-labor, anti-public employee person, so his goals are probably to try to go after union members and get them out of the union.”
Campbell said his advocacy group wants the addresses to mail information about its efforts, in hopes of updating existing supporters and attracting new ones. He’s most interested in reaching out to about 20,000 employees who have declined to join a union but still have to pay dues.
“One of our primary objectives is to make Pennsylvania a right-to-work state, and control some of the artificial power that public sector unions have,” he said. “We want to network with former and current union members that are like-minded.”
Right to know
Under the Right-to-Know Law, the motive behind a public records request doesn’t matter. Employee addresses are generally considered public, with a few exceptions for law enforcement, judges and Office of Open Records employees. Individual exemptions can also be granted as a matter of security, such for a victim of domestic violence.
“Home addresses have to be made public for not only candidates but for people who register to vote, property tax records, home ownership records – that’s all public,” said Melissa Melewsky, legal counsel for Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association. “You can’t hide where you live in the same way that you (can’t) keep your phone number private.”
Fillman said there is a wider range of state employees whose safety could be in jeopardy, such as an auditor who confronted a business owner with past due taxes, or a liquor store employee who turned away a drunk customer.
Wythe Keever, spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, argues that in most databases, from voter registration to WhitePages.com, individuals have the ability to consent to the release of their information. Some SERS members are part of the PSEA union, including educators in state correctional facilities and non-faculty professionals at state universities.
“While any single employee’s address might be hunted down on the Internet, or on tax rolls or voters’ lists at the county courthouse, nothing other than the (Right-to-Know Law) allows the release of all school employee home addresses in one fell swoop in that compiled format,” Keever said. “The fact that some people put a great deal of personal information on the Internet does not mean that everyone’s private information must now be public. The growing contradiction between the desire for privacy and the exponential growth of social networks should not automatically be resolved in favor of the sharing of information.”
In an interesting twist, Campbell’s group and PSEA are both displeased that SERS has continued to process its own members’ information and urged members to go through SERS to submit security exemptions. They want SERS to stop the processing amid the appeals process. Campbell said employees should be contacting the Office of Open Records directly.
“SERS has literally taken the law in its own hands,” Campbell said. “This is the most disingenuous behavior on the part of SERS. They sent all the state employees into a tizzy. Those employees have a legal right to contact the Office of Open Records. It’s in the law, and SERS is denying them that legal right.”
Campbell also offered another option: Go to a website he created and fill out an “opt-out” online form. He has pledged to withdraw his request for the address of any state employees who fills it out, “no questions asked.” About 50 employees have used that opt-out link, Campbell said.
Still, some members remain irked that opt-out link requires them to provide their personal email addresses.
Campbell also criticized SERS for not informing members immediately of the latest appeal filed with the Office of Open Records. SERS was given until Dec. 6 to do so, and posted a link to the appeal documents on its website this week.
The address dispute has placed a heavy administrative burden on SERS, with hundreds of members calling to express their concerns, SERS spokeswoman Heather Tyler said.
“It has always been SERS’ intention to fully comply with the law,” she said. “We feel that it is also our obligation to make sure that our members are aware of and have a meaningful opportunity to exercise their rights under the law to ensure their personal safety.”
“We serve about a quarter of a million people all over the world; that’s not necessarily a quick process,” she added.
In a separate case, a legal challenge will decide whether addresses for state school employees are public records. The ruling in that case, with the next hearing set for Dec. 5, could influence how the Office of Open Records rules in the SERS addresses case.
Natasha Lindstrom may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor's Note: This article was edited to reflect changes on Nov. 25.