They haven’t made it to the finish line yet. But a surprisingly robust group of bills are on tap in Frankfort that are worthy of note on Labor Day.
Some would improve pay for low-wage workers, others would clear up who is an employee for purposes of taxes, benefits and workers’ comp. A significant — and new —third group would make the workplace more family-friendly in common sense ways.
On the essential issue of workplace safety, a new task force is studying a long-standing protection, workers’ compensation.
We hope Kentuckians will encourage lawmakers to talk about all of the measures, reach thoughtful agreement on the details and — when they reconvene in January — act to push the envelope, even just step-by-step, to make work pay, make it ever safer and make the workplace family-friendly.
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Minimum-wage proposals are the most familiar. City councils in Louisville and Lexington have already stepped ahead of state lawmakers and shown that the way is safe for workers, jobs and employers. Kentucky won’t jump to the head of the pack nationally by enacting an increase, but step-by-step increases would help thousands of low-wage workers pay the rent and put food on the table.
Less familiar? Each legislative chamber has considered bills to clear up the rules and deter employers from wrongly treating workers as “independent contractors,” especially in construction. It’s a practice that deprives workers of protections like workers’ comp, minimum wage and overtime. It deprives state coffers of millions in tax dollars. It goes by the unwieldly name of “misclassification.”
Workers may not realize it’s happened to them until they pay taxes or are hurt at work.
Misclassification hinders fair competition by putting businesses that play by the rules at a disadvantage. The House this year passed a bill to address it on a strong 77-20 bipartisan vote. The measure would have fostered a coordinated enforcement by revenue, workforce development and workers’ comp agencies.
Let’s go for clear rules, strong protection and a level playing field.
What’s new? Bills that would make it easier to balance work and family:
The Kentucky Pregnant Workers Fairness Act would give employers guidance on reasonable, short-term accommodations for pregnant workers. It would prevent discrimination, protect jobs and foster healthy births. There’s simply no need for a worker to give up or lose her job when something as simple as a water bottle or more frequent rest breaks could have supported both her work and a healthy pregnancy.
The measure passed the House in 2015, but got caught in a crossfire of amendments this year.
This year also saw the first bill on paid maternity leave. It would have required employers with 50 or more employees to provide six weeks of paid maternity leave for a worker with at least one year on the job. Filed late in the session, it got no hearing. We hope the discussion begins in 2017.
Another new measure: paid sick leave, to care for oneself or a loved one during illness. The number of Kentucky workers without it is astonishing. The National Partnership for Women and Families says it’s over 642,000 workers, more than 45 percent of the Kentucky workforce.
The bill would have allowed workers to start earning sick leave when they start work, and use it after 90 days if needed.
We all get sick, but not everyone has time to get better before going back to work. A restaurant worker shouldn’t have to serve a burger with a side of flu. A day to rest and recover makes more sense for worker and customer alike. This bill, too, was filed late. We hope for a hearing next year.
When lawmakers reconvene in January, measures will get new bill numbers and a new chance at success. We’d like to give credit to lawmakers who stepped forward this year on the new family-friendly measures: Rep. Joni Jenkins, Rep. James Kay and Rep. Mary Lou Marzian. The list of other lawmakers who co-sponsored, voted favorably in committee or on the floor, for one or another measure above is long and promising.
To be sure, there will be disagreement and debate, as there should be. The key is to let your representatives in Frankfort know that you care about work, workers and working families.
Rich Seckel is director of the Kentucky Equal Justice Center.