This column has been updated to correct a quote by Sen. Janéa Holmquist Newbry.
By JEFF JOHNSON
(Jan. 30, 2014) — Contrasting values between House Democrats and Senate Republicans were made crystal clear Wednesday in Olympia. A statewide paid safe and sick leave bill was passed by 52 Democrats in the House and a bill cutting benefits for the most vulnerable injured workers was passed by Sen. Rodney Tom and the Republican Caucus along with Sen. Jim Hargrove (D-Hoquiam) in the Senate.
In fact, Democrat leadership in the House has begun to back up their words about wanting to address the inequality of income and opportunity. In the first two weeks of the 2014 legislative session, they have passed the DREAM Act, the Voting Rights Act, collective bargaining for community college workers at the local level, and now paid safe and sick leave. The Republican Senate has passed one bill, which cuts benefits for injured workers.
Rep. Laurie Jinkins (D-Tacoma), who prime sponsored the paid safe and sick leave bill, HB 1313, spoke eloquently about the need to provide a statewide uniform paid sick leave standard so that no worker in Washington state has to face the awful decision of having to choose between going to work sick and losing income for their families and potentially their jobs.
“You should vote for this bill because it is good for workers,” she said. “And if you can’t do it for that reason, then vote for it because it is good for families. And if not for that, then because it is good for public health. And if not for that, then because it is good for business.”
The Republican response was that HB 1313 was bad for business because it would raise the cost of doing business and lead to job loss. Following this logic one Republican legislator said, “A job with no sick leave is better than no job.”
Other Republicans argued that there really wasn’t a problem of workers not getting the sick leave they needed because businesses, and small businesses in particular, were compassionate.
Rep. Cyrus Habib (D-Kirkland) powerfully debunked these arguments by stating that the same Republican explanations were used during the debates over the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act. They said passage of the ADA would cause job loss. Habib said he could imagine someone saying a job without a wheelchair ramp is better than no job. His point was that this issue isn’t fundamentally about the degree of business compassion but of the need for a “base level of fairness in all jobs.”
Meanwhile, at the same time in the Senate chamber, a debate raged on over extending “compromise and release-settle-for-less- agreements” in workers’ compensation for injured workers of all ages.
Sen. Janéa Holmquist Newbry (R-Moses Lake) posed the issue in terms of creating more options and opportunities for injured workers. In fact, in a display of hubris and great irony she named her amendment, which removed all age limitations to settlement agreements, “The Worker Recovery Act.” At one point in her floor speech she said:
It is so hard as a legislator to look them in the eye and say, ‘I’m sorry you’re only 47, if only you were a few years older you would have this option and choice that is afforded to all of your brothers and sisters regardless of age in 44 other states. I’m sorry you are 47. If only you were 55.
Apart from the insensitivity to the very real emotional, physical and financial issues facing vulnerable injured workers when they are confronted with making a decision around settling out their claim, Sen. Holmquist Newbry added insult to injury when she later stated, in a Republican press conference, that this workers’ compensation bill was a “jobs bill.” She led off a press conference, ostensibly about creating jobs, by saying that 2ESSB 5127 would lower costs for business, which would lead to job creation.
Sens. Karen Keiser (D-Kent), Sharon Nelson (D-Maury Island) and Bob Hasegawa (D-Seattle) clearly laid out the hypocrisy of the so-called “Worker Recovery Act” by describing the awful situation settlement agreements put severely injured workers in as they try and grapple with decisions about their health, future work, self-worth and financial solvency. SB 5127 is a shameful way to cut costs in the workers’ compensation system.
In the Legislature, the best way to gauge individual and party values is by what is brought to the floor and how people vote. So far the difference is startlingly clear between House Democrats and Senate Republicans.
Jeff Johnson is President of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO, the largest labor organization in the Evergreen State, representing the interests of more than 500 local unions and 400,000 rank-and-file union members.