Following is today’s edition of the Washington State Labor Council’s Legislative Update newsletter (download PDF version):
Paid leave, sick days legislation invests in families, public health
OLYMPIA (Feb. 13, 2013) — Democrats in Olympia are offering Republicans an opportunity to embrace true family values, but early signs indicate that the GOP is siding with big business over our families.
HB 1313 establishes minimum standards for paid sick and safe leave, similar to what was recently enacted in the City of Seattle, but for all workers in Washington.
“Families should not have to make a choice between putting food on the table and sick leave,” said sponsor Rep. Laurie Jinkins (D-Tacoma). “When people cannot access sick leave, that’s the biggest way epidemics spread.”
At the bill’s hearing last week in the House labor committee, proponents estimated that nearly one million workers in Washington state are unable to take any paid sick leave. Many of them work in grocery stores, restaurants and health care, where they pose a risk not only to co-workers but to the public. Amid a nationwide flu outbreak, HB 1313 is especially timely.
But alas, Senate Republicans have countered with SB 5728, sponsored by Sen. John Braun (R-Centralia), which would preempt Seattle’s paid sick leave ordinance and render any such municipal standard unenforceable. It is scheduled for a hearing next Wednesday, Feb. 20 in the Senate labor committee.
HB 1457 would implement and expand Washington’s currently inactive Family and Medical Leave Insurance program. Said prime sponsor Rep. Tami Green (D-Tacoma): “As a mom, and a nurse, and a legislator, I see how devastating an illness in the family can be. Family and medical leave is the solution to a strong middle-class… When Washington invests in working families we have a strong record of success.”
In 2007, historic legislation was approved to grant all Washington workers up to five weeks of paid family leave to care for newborns, adopted children and illnesses of family members with a stipend of $250 per week. But the program’s funding source was not identified, and since then, recession-related concerns stymied efforts to create a funding source.
“This is an opportunity for us,” said Don Orange, owner of a Vancouver auto shop. “It’s not going to break our backs – a nickel here or a nickel there – but it’s absolutely the right thing to do. I look at it as an investment in the community.”
But all signs indicate the Republicans will ignore progressive small-business owners like Orange and side with the big business lobbying groups that oppose paid sick days and family leave. In the Republican-controlled Senate, Sen. John Braun (R-Centralia) has introduced SB 5159 to repeal the Family and Medical Leave Insurance program. Like their partisan ideological attack on workers’ compensation benefits, the bill is sponsored exclusively by members of the Republicans-Plus-Two coalition.
Protecting community voting rights
Voting rights are getting some necessary attention these days. There are legal challenges of the federal Voting Rights Act before the conservative U.S. Supreme Court that many fear could weaken that law. Republicans’ brief post-election soul-searching has generated little more than vows to “market” their agenda better and to propose legislation in many blue states — including Washington — to divide electoral votes in such a way that would have guaranteed Mitt Romney the presidency. Meanwhile, problematic Voter ID requirements continue to discourage voting among low-income and minority workers, and voters in many urban areas around the country are forced to wait in hours-long Election Day lines.
Here in Washington state, our vote-by-mail system does a pretty good job of encouraging voter participation, especially for state and national elections. However, at the local government level, at-large voting excludes some neighborhoods, particularly minority communities, from influencing important decisions that affect their schools, public safety, water use and land resources. These citywide elections can exclude communities from ever gaining representation from their neighborhoods. For example, the Associated Press reports that Yakima is now 41% Latino, but voters there have never elected a Latino member to the City Council.
HB 1413, the Washington Voting Rights Act prime sponsored by Rep. Luis Moscoso (D-Bothell), would empower local governments to fix this exclusion problem by allowing them to voluntarily change their voting systems to district-based elections. This bill, which is strongly supported by organized labor, would not only protect community voting rights, it will help avoid expensive litigation under the federal Voting Rights Act.
HB 1413 was heard in House Government Operations Committee, which voted Tuesday to advance the bill to House Rules Committee.
Washington Investment Trust hearing on Thursday
On Thursday, the Senate financial institutions committee will hear SB 5029 to create a Washington Investment Trust that can advance construction loans to local government entities for public infrastructure projects. Modeled after a successful state-run institution in North Dakota, the bill would enable the state’s money to be at its own disposal, instead of parked at Bank of America or some other commercial bank.
The Center for State Innovation, a nonpartisan think tank, has estimated that this State Investment Trust would increase small-business lending in our state by up to 8.2%, and create up to 10,700 jobs as a result.
“The Washington Investment Trust will keep our money in Washington, working for Washingtonians instead of ending up in Wall Street,” said Sen. Bob Hasegawa (D-Seattle), the bill’s prime sponsor.
Similar legislation has had hearings in the past two legislative sessions but has never been granted a committee vote. The WSLC hopes that happens this year so senators have a chance to vote on whether they want to put our tax dollars to work creating jobs right here in this state.
All colleges need labor perspective
HB 1536 guarantees that at least one member of every community college Board of Trustees represents labor. This is already a requirement in the technical colleges. Prime sponsored by Rep. Larry Seaquist (D-Gig Harbor), HB 1536 will create consistent, well-rounded representation on all of the colleges’ boards. Just as business members bring their knowledge and needs to their roles on the board, labor members bring the needed perspectives of workers and labor issues.
Last year, this legislation passed the House but was never heard, much less voted upon, in the Senate after being single-handedly killed by Sen. Rodney Tom (“D”-Medina), the former higher education committee chair. The WSLC urges the House to again approve this important bill and give Sen. Tom, now the Majority Leader of the Republicans-Plus-Two coalition, the opportunity to walk the talk on bipartisanship by allowing a fair debate and vote on HB 1536.
HB 1536 will be heard today in the House higher education committee. SB 5567, its Senate companion bill sponsored by Sen. Maralyn Chase (D-Shoreline), has yet been scheduled for a hearing.
“Good faith’ defense is a bad idea
SB 5158 and HB 1462 create a “good faith” defense for businesses that fail to pay minimum wage or overtime pay. Both were heard in their respective labor committees.
Under current law, if an employer is following an order or advice from the Department of Labor & Industries and fails to pay the proper wages, that employer may not be assessed a civil penalty but still must pay back wages to the underpaid worker(s). That’s fair. But SB 5158 and HB 1462 allow such employers to avoid not only penalties but also liability for unpaid wages simply by claiming they were making a “good faith” effort to comply with L&I instructions. This undermines and is inconsistent with the purpose of Washington’s Minimum Wage Act, a century-old employment standard that ensures workers are fairly compensated.
As Washington citizens await action on pressing issues like education and transportation funding, Medicaid expansion and job creation, bills like SB 5158 and HB 1462 undermine labor standards for low-income and middle-class workers. They are a distraction that should be set aside quickly.
Legislative Reception/Conference is Mar. 6-7
The Washington State Labor Council’s 2013 Legislative Reception and Legislative Conference will be March 6-7 at the Olympia Red Lion Hotel.
The Legislative Reception is Wednesday, March 6 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Olympia Red Lion Hotel. This is a great opportunity to talk informally with legislators, state officials and other trade unionists.
The Legislative Conference starts at 8:30 a.m. on Thursday, March 7 and will feature updates from union lobbyists about bills affecting working families. Legislative leaders will discuss the prospects for passing bills and budgets that invest in our state, create good jobs and protect our families. In the afternoon, plan to head to the Capitol to talk with your legislators.
The registration fee for both events is $75 per person, which includes two drinks and hors d’oeuvres at the reception and lunch and materials at the conference. If you want to bring additional guests to the reception, there is a $15 per person fee. Register in advance by downloading and returning this form. A block of rooms are being held at the Olympia Red Lion Hotel (360-943-4000 or 1-800-325-4000) until Feb. 19 at a special group rate. Reserve your room and register today!