As the Legislature closes in on a Friday deadline to pass bills out of their committee of origin, the Senate’s Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs Committee is taking up two major pieces of labor legislation.
The first, S.102, largely mirrors Congress’s Protecting the Right to Organize Act — the PRO Act, for short — which seeks to expand workers’ rights to organize unions and collectively bargain. The second, S.103, would grant employees greater rights to bring litigation against employers for discriminatory practices.
The major force behind the two bills is Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, D/P-Chittenden Southeast. She not only worked to draft the legislation, but, as chair of the economic development committee, steers the panel’s legislative agenda.
“In the most overarching sense, I would say we have a lot of pent-up demand and desire to look at labor and union organizing issues,” Ram Hinsdale told VTDigger in a Tuesday interview about her slate of labor-related bills.
But with only one week for the committee to consider two major pieces of legislation, Austin Davis, a lobbyist for the Lake Champlain Chamber of Commerce, told VTDigger he is concerned the bills won’t face enough scrutiny before advancing to a vote.
“It's not a simple tweak under the hood. It's got far-reaching consequences,” Davis said of the bills on Wednesday. “I don’t think it’s ready for prime time.”
Ram Hinsdale told VTDigger on Tuesday that the bills are being taken up in the final week before the Legislature’s so-called crossover deadline because, as chair, she tried to “take on topics as a chunk, rather than pepper them throughout and go from housing one day, to workforce the next day, to labor the next day.” For weeks, her committee pored over details of far-reaching housing legislation.
S.102 and S.103, along with a number of other labor-related bills, weren’t introduced until late February.
“I just kept trying to let all the stakeholders know, ‘This is coming. Be prepared. Be ready,’” Ram Hinsdale said Tuesday. “It wasn't an intention to run the clock and then put some of these issues right here at the end. Looking back from where I stand right now, I'm glad we spent six weeks on housing, and I think we right now have enough time to give due consideration to these other bills.”
Still, the committee is paring back pieces of S.102 and S.103, according to Ram Hinsdale, because they required “too long of a conversation” before Friday’s deadline. In S.102, a section establishing a definition for good-cause termination — thereby forcing employers to adequately justify firing an employee — will be scrapped. And in S.103, a section that sought to crack down on employer non-compete agreements is also on the chopping block after it became a “sticking point” with stakeholders.
What’s left in S.102 are broader protections for labor organizing, particularly for agricultural and domestic workers, and a crackdown on employers who attempt to union bust. The committee is also incorporating provisions from a separate bill, S.106, which would prohibit employers from forcing employees to be subject to communications or meetings with express religious or political messages.
That can mean union-busting messaging or a mandatory meeting to discuss religious values with employees, according to Ram Hinsdale.
Davis questioned whether the bill’s language could be misconstrued. What if, for instance, an employee argues that his workplace’s diversity, equity and inclusion training is political speech?
Ram Hinsdale conceded that she’s considered that possibility. “We might want to be explicit about that being allowed,” she said.
In S.103, Ram Hinsdale is attempting to loosen the state’s definition of workplace discrimination, granting employees greater legal authority to bring litigation against their employer if they faced repeated harassment or hostility at work for protected characteristics, such as their gender, race, religion or sexual orientation. Currently, in order to bring a workplace discrimination suit against their employer, employees have to prove that any harassment they faced was “severe or pervasive.”
That’s a high bar to clear, Ram Hinsdale said, and prevents employees from getting their day in court.
Davis countered that the “severe or pervasive” definition is a widely accepted standard, “and when you start to move away from that, that kind of basically nullifies the HR department and elevates it straight to litigation.”
In recent weeks, Ram Hinsdale also has introduced bills on workers compensation and unemployment insurance and legislation that would raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour by Jan. 1, 2025. Vermont’s current minimum wage is $13.18. It scales up annually in proportion to changes in the Consumer Price Index, but it hasn’t kept up with what state economists consider to be a “living wage” in the state, whereby a Vermonter could reasonably meet their living expenses.
Ram Hinsdale said her own minimum wage bill, S.108, won’t make it past her committee in time for Friday’s deadline, but she plans to tack on an amendment to a House bill later this session to raise the minimum wage. She said she’s anxiously awaiting a state report on 2022 wage data expected to drop in late March.
“What we hear most often is, ‘Who possibly could be making less than $15 an hour? Even McDonald's is at $16 an hour,’” Ram Hinsdale said. “And that's exactly what we're trying to answer. We want to have the best information about what happened to wages last year, which was a very consequential year for wages.”
Indeed, asked about the proposition to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour at a press conference on Tuesday, Republican Gov. Phil Scott told reporters, “I just think it's unnecessary.”
“I think wages have been inflated,” he said. “I wasn't in favor of a $15 minimum wage before the pandemic and I still am not. I believe that supply and demand works, and in this case, I believe most people are making well over $15 an hour.”
When she has the 2022 data in hand, Ram Hinsdale said she intends to move forward with a proposal. “I imagine there are still people who make less than $15 an hour, close to minimum wage, and we want to know in what industries and sectors and make informed decisions,” she said.
“Fifteen dollars seems like a wage of absolute survival at this point, with inflation where it is,” Ram Hinsdale said. “So we want to make sure that at least everyone is making that much.”
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