Union coalition gets ready for Round Two

FairShotCrowdThe labor-community coalition that helped pass Oregon’s paid sick leave law this year announced Nov. 12 that it will push a minimum wage increase and tougher laws on wage theft and racial profiling when the Oregon Legislature meets again in February 2016.

The coalition — Fair Shot for All — includes the Oregon AFL-CIO, Service Employees Local 503 and non-profit groups like Causa, Family Forward Oregon, and Voz Workers Rights Education Project. Earlier this year the coalition won passage of four out of five of its priorities: besides sick leave, that included “ban the box” and racial profiling laws, and a state-sponsored retirement savings system that will debut in 2017.

Many workers don’t report wage theft out of fear of losing their jobs. That’s something I’ve seen first-hand.” — Sheet Metal Local 16 member Darrin Boyce

But its top priority — raising the minimum wage — was stopped by Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney (D-Salem). It’s not clear Courtney has changed his position, but the coalition will try again when the Legislature holds its one-month short session in February. If lawmakers again fail to raise the wage, the group will have five more months to gather signatures on a ballot measure that would raise it to $13.50 and lift the ban on local jurisdictions going higher.

Fair Shot will also push to pass a stronger version of the law passed this year on the practice of racial profiling by police.

And it will add a new priority: legislation to combat wage theft. Wage theft is a catch-all term that includes employers who fail to pay the minimum wage, time-and-a-half for overtime, or prevailing wage on construction projects where it’s required; employers who steal tips; and employers who pay late, issue paychecks that bounce, or don’t pay at all. It also includes situations where workers don’t get paid rest breaks or pay for donning and doffing gear, or are made to work off the clock or under the table. And it includes employers who wrongfully misclassify workers as independent contractors.

“Good employers that are trying to do the right thing are undercut when they have to compete with businesses not paying their workers or paying them less than they’re due,” said Andrea Miller, executive director of the Latino civil rights group Causa.

Wage theft is particularly common in construction, where responsible employers, including union employers, lose business to competitors who break the law.

At the Fair Shot event, Darrin Boyce — now a journeyman sheet metal worker at Sheet Metal Workers Local 16 — described some of the many ways he was cheated during the years he worked the nonunion side of the industry, including faked timecards, off-the-clock work, and pay at a lower classification.

“It seems pretty basic,” Boyce said. “We should all get paid for the work we do. But there are workers every day in Oregon who are getting shortchanged. Our elected officials need to understand that wage theft isn’t rare, and it isn’t limited to a single class of individuals.”

“Many workers don’t report wage theft out of fear of losing their jobs,” Boyce said. “That’s something I’ve seen first-hand.”

Fair Shot’s wage theft proposal is still being worked out, but will likely include making it easier for workers to sue when they’re cheated, and giving the Bureau of Labor and Industries the power to require repeat offenders to post a bond guaranteeing payment of wages.

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