By Don McIntosh, Associate editor
How did working people fare in Oregon’s 2015 legislative session? Depends on your measuring stick. In the days following the July 6 adjournment, Democrats touted accomplishments like paid sick leave, a public retirement savings plan, and close to a billion dollars in job-creating public infrastructure investment.
Yet many in organized labor who spent time in the Capitol came away frustrated. That’s because expectations were high when the session began in February: Democrats had 18 of 30 seats in the Oregon Senate, and 35 of 60 in the Oregon House. Democrats tend to call themselves friends of labor, but it becomes harder every year to find pro-union Republican politicians. Yet on issues that forced Democrats to take sides, labor found that some Democrats couldn’t be counted on. Despite the Democratic majority, there weren’t enough Democratic votes to raise the minimum wage, toughen enforcement of wage-and-hour laws, penalize large employers who don’t offer health insurance, restore public sector union rights, or clean up abuses in public contracting. Even The Oregonian called the session, “a mixed bag for workers and the 99 percent.”
Labor’s trouble spot was the Senate, long the place where good ideas go to die. Call it the Betsy Johnson problem: In previous legislative sessions, Senator Johnson (D-Scappoose) prevented labor bills from passing when Democrats had a 16-14 edge. To get around that, enormous effort went to expand the Senate Democratic majority in the 2014 election. At the Oregon AFL-CIO’s urging, Democrats campaigned on a working families agenda — and picked up two more Senate seats. Now it would take three wayward Democrats to doom labor-backed legislation. But that’s exactly what happened on a number of bills, and making matters worse, much of the bill-killing took place in closed door meetings of the Senate Democratic caucus. Labor lobbyists would canvass lawmakers to tally support for a bill, and think they had 16 yeses, only to hear from their Senate allies that in the caucus meetings their bill was short of a majority. It could be a painful discovery — in past sessions, fair-weather friends in the Senate could masquerade as “yes” votes while blaming Johnson for inaction. This year’s problem senators, according to interviews with over a dozen labor lobbyists and allies, included Mark Hass (D-Beaverton), Chris Edwards (D-Eugene), and Lee Beyer (D-Springfield).
Meanwhile, a coalition of two dozen business groups led by Associated Oregon Industries made it clear where it stood, putting over a dozen labor-backed bills on its “job killer” list, and campaigning hard to limit labor wins.
What follows is blow-by-blow on the bills that made it, and those that didn’t, on issues that matter to working people. A ☑ mark means it passed; ☒ means the bill failed. Click the bill numbers to see the bills themselves, and how individual members voted.
The Fair Shot Five
The biggest labor news in the Oregon Capitol this year was the emergence of a powerful coalition of labor and community groups, led by five organizations, and joined by 20 others. Known as Fair Shot for All, the coalition united around five legislative proposals, and passed four of them. Now the coalition will reload and try to pass the fifth — an increase in the minimum wage — in the February 2016 short legislative session.
☑ SB 454 Paid sick time Starting Jan. 1, 2016, Oregon workers will have the right to take up to 40 hours of sick leave per year — paid where there are 10 or more employees (six or more in Portland), and unpaid where there are fewer. [Construction employers who offer benefits through union multi-employer trusts will be exempt.] Oregon is only the fourth state in the nation to pass such a bill. Supporters wanted to pass it early in order to move on to other priorities. Instead it took four-and-a-half months for the Senate to pass it; in the House, it took two days. Backers lost ground when the paid-unpaid threshold rose to 10 (from 5, as initially proposed), but they defeated an effort to leave out farmworkers. They also beat back an attempt by State Senator Chris Edwards (D-Eugene) to tie sick leave’s passage to a ban on all labor ordinances by local jurisdictions (an idea popular with the national big business legislative clearinghouse known as ALEC). In the end, no Republican voted for the paid sick time bill. All Democrats voted for it, except Brian Clem (D-Salem) and John Lively (D-Springfield) in the House, and Betsy Johnson (D-Scappoose) in the Senate.
☑ HB 2960 Retirement security Starting July 1, 2017, all Oregon workers who don’t have an employer-sponsored retirement plan (about 400,000 workers) will have one automatically set up by the State of Oregon — unless they choose to opt out. The low-fee account, funded by payroll deduction, will grow over time and enable workers to collect a monthly benefit when they retire.
☑ HB 3025 Ban the box They did the crime, served the time, and now they (and we) need to start over. Ban the box bars employers from asking about criminal convictions at the initial application stage. Law enforcement agencies and other employers required by law to consider an applicant’s criminal history are exempt. Senate President Peter Courtney (D-Salem) didn’t like the bill, but the support of Salem Republican Jackie Winters, the only African-American state senator, made the difference. Backers also defeated an effort to pre-empt stronger local ban-the-box ordinances, and as a result, Portland may soon move forward with something stronger.
☑ HB 2002 Racial profiling Oregon, like America, has a problem with race, and one of places that shows up is police bias, oft-times unconscious. The new law bans law enforcement from using profiling as a tactic, requires law enforcement agencies to collect data about profiling, and establishes a process for accepting and addressing profiling complaints. The bill got a boost in April when Oregon Association Chiefs of Police backed it.
☒ Minimum wage The Oregon Legislature hasn’t lifted a finger to raise the minimum wage in more than two decades. Instead, organize labor dipped into its piggy bank to fund ballot measure campaigns in 1996 (to $6.50) and 2002 (to $6.90, followed by annual raises for inflation). This year, 10 minimum wage bills were introduced, to raise it from $9.25 today to $12.20 to $15 over the next three years. But none of them passed, not even a bill to let local jurisdictions set a higher local minimum wage. If there’s one man responsible, it’s Senate President Peter Courtney (D-Salem). He declared that he wouldn’t allow a vote on any minimum wage bill, and that gave cover to other Democrats who might have been nervous to offend business opponents of the minimum wage. Of course, the House didn’t vote on it either, nor was a word of support for it heard from Governor Kate Brown (or Kitzhaber before her). But the issue’s not dead. An informal task force of legislators will try to build consensus to pass it in the February 2016 short session, and House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland) says it’s a priority. If that fails, advocates are already gathering signatures to put a $15 minimum wage on the ballot in November 2016.
Other wins and losses for workers
☒ Wage theft The Oregon Coalition to Stop Wage Theft, a coalition of eight unions and 29 faith and community groups, teamed up with state labor commissioner Brad Avakian to push a set of bills cracking down on the growing problem of employers who violate wage and hour laws. They had almost no success. Was it because of the power of the National Federation of Wage Thieves? Not exactly, but AOI and Associated General Contractors tarred the bills as “job-killers.” Just one bill passed, allowing the Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI) to garnish employer accounts to enforce wage orders. The coalition’s other proposals will have to try again next time.
☒ SB 845 Large employer health insurance The Oregon AFL-CIO’s “healthcare accountability” bill would have penalized large employers whose employees end up on publicly subsidized health care. No state has done this so far. But State Rep. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward (D-Portland) succeeded in directing state agencies to report back by January 2016 how many working people are on the Medicaid-funded Oregon Health Plan, and how much that costs the state.
☒ SB 888 Scheduling abuses A 2014 San Francisco ordinance puts a halt to abusive scheduling practices, which are a growing problem thanks to computerized scheduling programs at some national chains. The programs give workers little notice of schedules, make last-minute schedule changes, require workers to be on-call, and send workers home early when sales are slow. All this creates chaos in workers’ home lives and tremendous volatility in take-home pay. No one thought Oregon lawmakers would be up to anything as bold as San Francisco, but advocates dipped a toe in the water with bills giving workers the right to ask for flexible or predictable schedules. Instead, the legislature went the other way, passing a two-year moratorium on local jurisdictions taking action on scheduling. That anti-worker move was led by State Senator Chris Edwards (D-Eugene), who got it attached to passage of the sick leave measure.
☒ HB 2995 Uber insurance Portland City Council rolled over and put its paws up after Uber came to town: They let so-called transportation network companies skirt the rules that constrain their taxi competitors. That’s making life harder for Union Cab, a 100-member driver-owned co-op whose drivers are members of CWA Local 7901. When City Council voted 3-2 to legalize Uber, they said they hoped and wished the Oregon Legislature would step in to require adequate company-paid insurance when the drivers are on the road. Cab companies went to Salem asking for that, but the bill went nowhere.
☑ SB 552 Domestic worker bill of rights Starting Jan. 1, nearly 10,000 nannies, house cleaners, and housekeepers who work in Oregon homes will have a right to three days off a year, meal and rest breaks, and protections against harassment and discrimination. Those living in employers’ homes will get eight hours of uninterrupted rest every 24 hours, overtime pay after 44 hours of work, and the right to cook meals. Others will get overtime after 40 hours and at least one day off a week. Oregon is the fifth state to pass versions of this bill, giving domestic workers some of the legal rights other workers have.
☑ HB 2007 Wage transparency Employers will be barred from retaliating against workers for disclosing their wages. That’s something that’s already unlawful under the National Labor Relations Act, but many employers are unaware of that, and forbid their employees from discussing pay. Such workplace policies can mask unfair wage disparities, including compensation differences between male and female workers.
☑ HB 2764 Workers comp It’s gotten harder to get a lawyer when a worker’s comp claim is denied in Oregon, because low fees make it hard for lawyers to take cases. But this year MLAC, the permanent management-labor committee on workers comp, recommended a bill to raise fees in a way that doesn’t come out of a worker’s settlement; it passed.
☑ HB 3400 Cannabis workers rights United Food and Commercial Workers, which has unionized cannabis workers in other states, was able to get workers rights provisions added to Oregon’s new law regulating the newly-legalized cannabis industry. A section of the new law guarantees cannabis workers the right to unionize, and makes it an unlawful employment practice to discriminate or retaliate against workers for that. It also lets the Oregon Liquor Control Commission set merit-based criteria for issuing or renewing licenses, including whether an applicant offers employees living wages and benefits.
☑ HB 3059 Stripper hotline Whether nude dancers are employees or independent contractors, they do have some rights. A bill backed by National Association of Social Workers directs the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries to publish a poster about their rights, and set up a toll-free hotline to take complaints and answer questions.
[pullquote]The number one issue people have with health care is cost. To take on health care costs, you really have to take on the industry and say ‘You’re done making billions every year off the backs of working people.’ The legislature hasn’t done that.”
— SEIU Local 49 political director Felisa Hagins
[/pullquote]SEIU Local 49, which represents 7,600 health care workers, runs a campaign called Act Now for a Healthy Oregon that pushes for industry reforms like insurance rate review, price transparency, and trying to get hospitals to do the charity care they get tax-free status for. But the effort was opposed by dozens of lobbyists representing the medical-industrial complex, and they’re used to getting their way in Salem. SEIU’s reform ideas died on the vine against the political power of hospitals, insurance, pharma and the rest.
☒ SB 891 Health care price transparency One bill would have required health care facilities to publish their prices, so consumers could make informed choices about where to go. Instead, lawmakers passed what state senator Chip Shields (D-Portland) called a “sham hospital rate transparency” bill: Hospitals will submit price data for the most common procedures, but the state will keep the information secret, instead publishing the “median” price. Not very helpful for comparison shopping, is it?
☒ SB 665 Hospital rate review commission A law in Maryland treats health care like a public utility: Providers have to offer justification, and get permission from a rate review commission after a public review process, before they can raise their rates. The bill to do that in Oregon didn’t go anywhere.
☒ HB 3034 Taxing health care facilities that don’t provide charity care Oregon’s non-profit hospitals get all kinds of tax breaks — no property taxes, no income taxes, nothing — but face no requirements on how much charity care they’re supposed to provide in exchange. In fact, SEIU says, hospital spending on charity care declined by nearly half in the first half of 2014. But the bill to link the property tax exemption to the amount of charity care died without a committee vote.
☑ SB 469 Hospital staffing ratio SEIU and the Oregon Nurses Association did win a set of improvements to a nurse staffing ratio law. The 2001 law requires hospitals to have a minimum staffing plan developed by a joint committee of nurse managers and direct care nurses. Now, that committee will have a position for a CNA or LPN too, and at unionized hospitals, the direct care nurses will be selected by the union. Also, committee meetings will be open to hospital staff and to union reps. Health care providers will also get at least 10 hours off after working 12 hours in a 24-hour period. And nurses will be allowed to refuse to work overtime if they believe that would jeopardize patient or employee safety.
☑ HB 2828 Single payer universal health care Health Care for All Oregon, a union-supported coalition calling for universal health care, won a bill appropriating $300,000 to study such a program in Oregon. The taxpayer-funded study will look at single-payer system and compare it to three other options: a publicly-sponsored insurance plan to compete with private insurance on the Obamacare exchange; a sales-tax-funded high-deductible insurance plan proposed by some Republicans, and the status quo. The bill passed the House 36-24, but initially failed in the Senate 12-17. But State Senator Michael Dembrow (D-Portland), its chief backer, was able to resurrect it and hold a second vote on the bill, which then passed 16-14.
☒ HB 2544 A deal’s a deal In 1995, a Republican-led legislature reduced union power with a rewrite of Oregon’s public employee collective bargaining law. Twenty years later, public employee unions are still trying to get Democratic majorities to undo the damage. One example is “expedited bargaining.” A public employer like the City of Portland can sign a union contract, then come back soon after and say they forgot something, or something new has come up, and unilaterally impose new terms — over union objections — after 90 days of desultory “expedited bargaining.” Oregon AFSCME and Oregon School Employees Association pushed a bill to require binding arbitration in such cases if the two sides couldn’t agree. It passed the House 32-25. In the Senate … it couldn’t get a floor vote.
☒ HB 2565 Right to unionize The Oregon State Bar is a quasi-public agency that polices misconduct by lawyers. Should its staff have the same right as other workers to unionize? Oregon House Democrats thought so, and approved a bill to make the Bar subject to Oregon’s collective bargaining law — on a party-line 35-25 vote. In the Senate, it died in committee.
☑ Improvements for crisis unit workers Oregon’s Stabilization and Crisis Unit is a network of 23 secure group homes where about 250 AFSCME-represented staff work with sometimes violent adults or children with intellectual or developmental disabilities who are deemed a risk to the public, themselves, or fellow residents. AFSCME was able to pass a bill this year to allow the staff the same early retirement benefits that police and fire fighters get, and another bill creating a task force to improve staff safety.
Every year, the Oregon State Building and Construction Trades Council goes to Salem to advocate for public infrastructure investment, help clear obstacles to private construction projects, and protect and expand the requirement to pay the prevailing wage to workers on construction projects that spend public money. Building Trades executive secretary-treasurer John Mohlis State ended this year’s session more aggrieved than celebratory. Mohlis called it “almost inconceivable” that lawmakers would leave without passing a transportation bill, and says a needed renovation of the State Capitol won’t get easier or cheaper just because lawmakers kicked that down the road. Still, lawmakers did approve hundreds of millions in new infrastructure spending, and passed some union-supported fixes to past tax and prevailing wage legislation.
☑ SB 324 Clean fuels Oregon’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard, also known as the Clean Fuels Program, was first approved by the legislature in 2009, and needed to be re-approved in 2015 in order to go forward to implementation after six years of research. The bill had the backing of the building trades, as well as AFSCME Local 3336, which represents Oregon DEQ. The plan is to reduce the carbon needed to make transportation fuels by 10 percent over the next 10 years. It’s likely to create jobs: Salem’s SeQuential Pacific BioFuels is expanding its refinery capacity by 20 percent, and Fort Collins, Colorado-based Red Rock Biofuels is pursuing permits to construct a new $200 million plant in Lakeview.
☒ 4-cent gas tax increase to fund road improvements Because cars are more efficient than they used to be, Oregon’s gas tax isn’t keeping up with the need to maintain roads. The state gas tax is currently 30 cents per gallon, and hasn’t increased since 2011. Lawmakers put together a plan for two 2-cent increases. [Any more than that, and the trucking industry and AAA threatened to campaign to overturn it with a ballot measure.] The tax increase — plus higher vehicle fees — would have generated $343 million for roads. But the plan needed some Republican votes, because of Oregon’s undemocratic requirement that tax increases pass by a 3/5 (60 percent) supermajority (the product of a 1996 ballot referral that itself passed by only 55 percent). Republicans decided to hold the transportation package hostage in order to get Democrats to repeal the Clean Fuels program. Democrats balked, and stalemate resulted.
☒ $337 million State Capitol renovation The State of Oregon has spent more than $30 million planning a renovation of the Capitol building — a four-year $337 million project to make it earthquake-safe, overhaul ancient wiring and plumbing, and add hearing rooms and an improved cafeteria. But the project didn’t get the green light from lawmakers.
☑ SB 927 Convention Center hotel A new law makes it clear that the Metro regional government has the authority to finance construction of a convention center headquarters hotel.
☑ SB 611 Central Assessment Fix An Oregon Supreme Court ruling changed the way data centers are classified, resulting in increased property taxes. A new law clarifies that a lower rate applies.
☒ HB 2632 Solar arrays A bill to incentivize utility-scale solar installations of up to 300 Megawatts was backed by IBEW, but failed to pass. IBEW Local 48 political director Joe Esmonde thinks lawmakers balked at the price tag. Supporters hope to try again in future sessions.
☑ SB 596 Flagger licensing Backed by the Laborers union, a new law requires construction flagging contractors to obtain a license and show that they’re bonded and carry insurance.
☑ HB 3072 Career and technical education (CTE) A state program that pays set-up costs for school district CTE programs got another $35 million in funding, and also now will pay for summer programs.
☑ Capital construction projects
- $240 million for new construction and energy and seismic retrofits at public universities
- $175 million for seismic upgrades to K-12 schools
- $125 million to fix outdated, dilapidated, and hazardous school facilities
- $50 million for water storage and conservation projects in rural Oregon
- $45 million for “multimodal” transportation infrastructure — air, rail, marine, transit, bicycle and pedestrian
- $40 million in affordable housing
- $35 million for safety improvements at deadly intersections and roads
- $20 million for housing for Oregonians with mental illness or addiction
- $10 million to continue upgrading the Coos Bay Rail Line
Oregon Working Families Party
Oregon Working Families Party is a union-backed minor party that works to pass pro-worker legislation. It was a big part of the coalition behind sick leave, but on other issues, the party’s efforts fell victim to the same forces that doomed other labor legislation.
☒ HB 2564 Inclusionary zoning Housing is fast becoming unaffordable for working people in places like Portland and Bend, but a pre-emption passed by Republicans in 1999 bars city councils from using something called “inclusionary zoning” to address that. Texas is the only other state to ban the strategy, in which local governments require developers to make a certain percentage of new units affordable. A bill to undo the pre-emption passed the House 34-25, but failed in the Senate.
☒ HB 2662 Pay it forward The national media were so excited in 2013 when the Oregon Legislature passed a bill for a program of free public college tuition in return for students paying a certain percentage of their income after they leave. But they didn’t know Oregon. The program would have required a funding pool to start the program. Voters last year rejected a complicated, thinly-supported constitutional change ballot referral that would have allowed a bond-financed revolving fund to be set up for that purpose. And this year, lawmakers not only balked at the start-up price tag, but questioned whether students who do well should have to pay more, and whether students who do poorly should get off so easily.
☒ SB 66 Fusion voting The holy grail for the Oregon Working Families Party is full-fledged fusion voting, a system where parties can cross-endorse candidates but keep their own ballot line. Operating in New York and Connecticut, it creates conditions for third parties to thrive. But in Oregon, even a bill directing the Secretary of State to study it couldn’t get anywhere this year.