Minimum wage, farmworkers under attack

SALEM - The Legislature is back in session, which means no Oregonian is safe - especially low-income workers and minorities.

Less than two weeks after the gavel pounded opening the 70th session of the Oregon Legislature, several proposals have surfaced to sabotage the state's minimum wage law, weaken job safety laws for agricultural workers, and stiffen eligibility for unemployment insurance benefits.

Ever since Oregonians voted overwhelmingly to raise the state minimum wage in 1996, the Oregon Restaurant Association (ORA) has complained that wages ($5.50, $6 and $6.50) are just too high for employers to pay. Then again, it said the same thing in 1995 when the minimum wage was only $4.75 an hour.

But over the years, the restaurant lobby has spent tens of thousands of dollars trying to elect politicians who support ORA's position to roll back hourly wages of tipped workers. Organized labor has managed to successfully lobby lawmakers to defeat the ORA's agenda, although in 1997 it was by the narrowest of margins - a 30-30 tie.

This year the restaurant association is again trying to implement roll backs through tip credit and training wage schemes. Tip credit would permit eating and drinking establishments to pay employees $1 less then the minimum wage. Any future minimum wage hikes would be absorbed by tips up to 50 percent of the mandated minimum wage. The training wage would allow employers to pay new hires $5.50 an hour for the first two months on the job. The ORA proposal also includes a new definition of "piece rate" for farmworkers from the quantity of "crop harvested" to "work performed or services rendered."

Irv Fletcher, president of the Oregon AFL-CIO, said the proposals "are nothing short of a blatant attempt to undermine the will of the Oregon voters."

Proposed legislation that could have excluded seasonal farm worker participation in workplace safety issues may be on the verge of being shelved after officials from the state labor federation, Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN), the Oregon Farm Bureau and Oregon-OSHA seemed to find common ground during a hearing Jan. 29 of the House Business and Consumer Affairs Committee.

Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg, sponsored bills to exempt agricultural employers with 10 or fewer workers from ever having workplace safety committees and to exclude seasonal workers when determining the need for safety committees. Another bill would exempt family-operated farms from all safety and health requirements and yet another bill would prohibit OR-OSHA from issuing citations to agricultural employers for "non-serious" violations discovered during a first inspection.

State Representative Dan Gardner, D-Portland, told the Northwest Labor Press that in peak months Oregon's small farms can employ an aggregate 42,000 workers, all of whom would be exempt from health and safety laws under the proposals.

Peter DeLuca, administrator of OR-OSHA, testified that, "safety committees bring people together to talk about safety and identify hazards. I don't view safety committees as detrimental to small farms, but a monthly or quarterly meeting when no workers are on the farm has the farm family talking to themselves, is an example of government requiring meaningless acts."

DeLuca said he met with participants and offered to write new rules for small farms, including seasonal safety committee meetings, "when there is an influx of labor and they can discuss the safety issues."

DeLuca said drastic cutting of safety committees and level of inspections could threaten Oregon's federal grant funding.

Ramon Ramirez, president of PCUN, told the Northwest Labor Press, "I am very happy with this major victory for farm workers."

A Feb. 1 hearing to consider changes in unemployment insurance benefits was met with opposition by labor. House Bill 2244 would require the Employment Division to refer all unemployment insurance recipients to available "suitable" work through the state-subsidized JOBS Plus program. JOBS Plus has replaced food stamps and Aid to Families with Dependent Children and requires recipients to work for near minimum wage. If JOBS Plus advocates try to expand it to replace unemployment insurance, the Oregon AFL-CIO will oppose it.

A major workers' compensation bill - SB 460 - is being opposed by the Oregon AFL-CIO, although it is supported by the Workers' Compensation Management-Labor Advisory Committee. The bill would repeal most of the sunset clauses (which would cause the law to expire unless renewed) established under 1997's controversial workers' comp reform bill. "The sunsets were part of a political compromise that enabled the workers' comp reform bill to pass in 1997," said Brad Witt, secretary-treasurer of the state labor federation, in testimony before the Senate Public Affairs Committee.

The sunsets lifted by SB 460, and for which the Oregon AFL-CIO believes significant improvements could be made, include language on "major contributing cause and combined condition." The AFL-CIO said many injured workers are being excluded from comp benefits because their job-related accidents don't past muster as the "major contributing cause" to their injuries. "This exclusion of benefits is both a severe inequity and a longstanding problem," Witt said.

The AFL-CIO also objects to injured workers forced to be treated under managed care organization protocols prior to a comp claim being accepted.

SB 460 would increase permanent partial disability benefits, but Witt said it doesn't go far enough because it is absent cost-of-living raises.

SB 460 passed out of committee unanimously.

A workers' comp bill, SB 220, sponsored by the Department of Consumer and Business Services and opposed by the AFL-CIO, would close that agency's claims closure unit and give insurance companies and self-insured employers the authority to close comp claims.

On Feb. 3 - after this issue of the NW Labor Press went to press - the Oregon Senate voted on a Republican-sponsored charter school bill, SB 100. The bill is expected to pass in the Senate, where Republicans hold a 17-13 majority. Under SB 100, charter schools would be exempt from many state regulations currently in place to ensure quality education and the right to collective bargaining for employees.

Richard Schwarz, executive director of the American Federation of Teachers-Oregon, in written testimony, said the bill would allow for the conversion of existing private schools to public charter schools. Such conversions could funnel public education funding to schools that have restricted their enrollment to specific populations.

SB 100 would require only half a charter schools' staff to be licensed by the Teachers Standards and Practices Commission and would exempt them from existing union contracts and prohibit charter school employees from inclusion in a local or regional school district collective bargaining unit.

AFT and the Oregon Education Association will now have to tackle the bill in the House. Governor John Kitzhaber has said he will veto the SB 100 in its existing form.

SB 437 would repeal sunsets on exclusive remedy, allowing injured workers to have only the state's workers' compensation system as a legal remedy for injury on the job.

SB 2022 and 2265, which the AFL-CIO supports, would increase benefits for spouses and some children of fatally injured workers and also require health insurers and workers' comp insurers to cover services provided by physician assistants.

February 5, 1999 issue

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