The Washington Senate approved a bill this week to better protect caregivers following October’s shooting at Smith Tower Apartments in downtown Vancouver.
Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, sponsored Senate Bill 6205, which directs state agencies to work with caregivers to develop protocols for reporting and addressing harassment, abuse and discrimination.
Cleveland proposed the legislation after Robert “Bob” Breck, 80, killed one man and wounded two women in a shooting and standoff that received national media attention.
According to court records, Beck offered to pay his in-home care provider to be his mistress. She declined, and he fired her about a week later. The woman continued to care for one of his neighbors.
On Oct. 3, Breck shot a fellow resident he had feuded with, Dean Leon Tunstall, 75, in the building’s lobby.
He also shot and wounded his former caregiver and neighbor. He told authorities he shot the two women “only because they got in my way and were going to help the guy.”
Breck died from natural causes last week before he could be tried for one count of first-degree murder and two counts of attempted first-degree murder.
The incident prompted Cleveland to sponsor legislation to help caregivers cope with difficult situations.
“Sadly, it took the tragic shootings of a caregiver and a patient and a resident to bring attention to this need,” she said in a statement following Monday’s vote. “The truth is that caregivers have been facing harassment and discrimination in private home settings for some time,” she said. “These caregivers work in isolated settings, are often women and people of color, and may feel afraid to report abusive behavior for fear of retaliation.”
According to Cleveland, SB 6205 would:
• Direct the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services to convene a stakeholder group to recommend best practices for training employers, workers and care recipients to prevent discrimination and abuse.
• Establish boundaries that define abusive conduct, discriminatory harassment, inappropriate sexual behavior, physical sexual aggression, sexual contact, sexual harassment, workplace physical and verbal aggression, and workplace violence.
• Authorize the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries to enforce requirements governing worker training, record-keeping and retaliation.
• Provide peer-to-peer training for caregivers.
“Because they work in homes, caregivers have no co-workers to turn to for advice and have limited options in how to go about reporting inappropriate behavior by a client,” Cleveland said in her statement. “This is a critical first step to establish clearer boundaries so that caregivers can better know what to expect, how to de-escalate a situation, how and when to report a situation, and what to do if a situation becomes unsafe.”
37-11 Senate vote
The Senate approved SB 6205 by a 37-11 Monday, with one senator excused.
Among the three senators from Clark County, Cleveland voted for the bill while Republicans Ann Rivers and Lynda Wilson opposed it.
Although all 11 no votes came from Republicans, this was not a party-line vote; eight Republican senators voted for the legislation.
Cleveland, chair of the Senate Health & Long Term Care Committee, recounted the Smith Tower shooting and how Breck’s caregiver had rejected his sexual advances during a short floor speech Monday.
“I realize this is an uncomfortable topic,” she said. “It’s one that I do feel that we need to discuss in order to raise awareness and prevent future tragedies.”
Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-Pierce County, the ranking Republican on the Health & Long Term Care Committee, said on the Senate floor that he believes “the case has been made” for better workplace protections.
The Senate committee heard about threats and harassment that in-home caregivers endure as a “price of doing business,” he said. The bill might need “additional adjustments,” he said, to address concerns about people with developmental disabilities and whether there are sufficient safeguards for patients who may not be fully aware of their conduct.
Sen. Randi Becker, R-Olympia, who also serves on the Health & Long Term Care Committee, mentioned those concerns and the need for more work in explaining why she was a “reluctant no” vote.
“The goal of the bill is amazingly good, but I don’t think the bill is there yet,” Becker said.