Oregon Legislature passes pro-worker laws in short session

By COLIN STAUB and DON McINTOSH

The Oregon Legislature passed a short list of pro-worker laws in the 2022 “short” session that ended March 4. Democrats have a 37-23 majority in the state house and a 18-12 majority in the state senate. Here are some of the highlights:

  • OVERTIME PAY FOR FARMWORKERS When Congress legislated time-and-a-half for overtime in 1938, it excluded farm and domestic workers. HB 4002 makes Oregon the eighth state to extend the right to overtime pay to farmworkers. The bill phases in over five years. Starting in 2023, Oregon farmworkers will have the right to overtime pay when they work more than 55 hours in a week. In 2025 and 2026, they’ll get overtime after 48 hours. And from 2027 onward, they’ll get it after 40 hours, like other workers. The law applies to dairy and livestock workers as well as those who plant and harvest crops. Opponents of the bill said farms will fail because it will raise labor costs during harvest time that they may not be able to pass on to consumers given competition in the commodity market. To look at that question, the bill was amended to direct state agencies to report back in 2026 and every six years after that as to the economic impacts of the overtime compensation requirement. HB 4002 also sets up temporary taxpayer subsidies to compensate farmers for some of the increased payroll cost. A new refundable tax credit will reimburse small farms 90% of the additional cost in year one, and 60% for those employing more than 50 workers. Those drop to 60 and 15% in the fifth and final year of the tax credit. The bill passed the House 37 to 23 and the Senate 17 to 10 on party lines, with Springfield Democrat Lee Beyer joining all Republicans in voting against it.
  • ENDING LAST-MINUTE OVERTIME Bakery employees will receive at least five days notice before being assigned a mandatory overtime shift, under the rules set out in Senate Bill 1513. The legislation passed the Senate 24-2 and the House 36-21. It prevents bakeries from disciplining workers who decline last-minute overtime shifts, a too-common situation according to union employees of the Nabisco plant in Northeast Portland, who testified in favor of the bill. Gov. Kate Brown signed the legislation March 7, and it takes effect in January 2023.
  • $600 PAYMENTS TO ESSENTIAL WORKERS Low-income households with members who worked during the first year of the pandemic will be eligible to receive a $600 one-time payment this year. House Bill 4157 will send payments to about 245,000 Oregon taxpayers, according to the state. The money is only available to workers who claimed the earned-income tax credit in 2020. The Oregon AFL-CIO, which supported the bill, says it will help low-wage workers without requiring them to apply, because the program will use tax records to determine who receives payments. “While the pandemic is not over, many of the supports that helped some of our communities survive are ending,” the AFL-CIO testified. “While our broader economy has made strong gains, inflation and the cost of living have increased. Working families need support to keep pace and pay for essential needs.”
  • FUNDING TO GROW THE WORKFORCE Senate Bill 1545 creates a variety of grant programs seeking to bring more workers into jobs across the state’s economy. Among other points, the bill appropriates $18.9 million into a new grant program to support registered apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship training programs in health care and manufacturing and for pre-apprenticeship training programs in construction. The money will be available for labor groups, community organizations, local workforce development boards and more, according to the bill. All told, SB 1545 invests $76.9 million from the state’s General Fund and $123.1 million in federal funds. It passed 23-3 in the Senate and 48-10 in the House.
  • LIMITING WORKERS COMP SURPRISES When a worker is injured on the job and receives workers compensation payments while recovering, at some point a doctor will declare the worker medically “stationary.” That means the worker has reached maximum improvement from the injury. The temporary workers’ comp payments stop, and the insurer calculates a final payment based on any permanent disability the worker is left with. But sometimes, when the final payment is announced, the insurer also informs the worker that maximum improvement actually occurred several months—or even years—prior, and the temporary payments the worker has been receiving are suddenly considered “overpayments” that are deducted from the final disability payout. House Bill 4138 limits retroactive medically stationary status to 60 days before notice is given, and it limits how much insurers can reduce a final payment to recover “overpayments.” It passed the House unanimously and by a 25-1 vote in the Senate. The bill awaits the governor’s signature.
  • NO WORKERS COMP DISCRIMINATION It was already illegal for an employer to retaliate against a worker for seeking workers compensation payments. But House Bill 4086 expands those rules to prohibit anyone acting on behalf of an employer from retaliating, and it spells out that inquiring about workers compensation is a protected activity. The bill also modernizes some language (replacing “invalid” with “incapacitated”) and establishes that Oregon family law will be referenced when determining eligibility for workers compensation beneficiary benefits when a couple is unmarried, a change from previous language that laid out specific relationship parameters. It passed 48-6 in the House and 23-4 in the Senate, and was signed by the governor on March 2.
  • NO MORE NON-DISCLOSURE LOOPHOLES Lawmakers in 2019 banned companies from requesting non-disclosure agreements that restrict employees’ ability to speak out about workplace discrimination, harassment and sexual assault. Now, that prohibition will extend to former employees, meaning workers who are in settlement negotiations after they leave a job are covered by the same protection. Senate Bill 1586, which was supported by UFCW Local 555, SEIU Local 503, PROTEC17, the Oregon AFL-CIO and the Northwest Workers’ Justice Project, passed the Senate 22-2 and the House 47-9. 
  • WORKERS COMP PRESUMPTIONS FOR FIREFIGHTERS Because fire fighters are exposed to all sorts of carcinogens when they respond to fires, state law presumes for workers compensation purposes that certain types of cancer are job-related illnesses in firefighters who have been on the job longer than five years. Although prostate and testicular cancers are already on the list, female reproductive cancers have not been included, an equity problem for Oregon’s 276 career women firefighters. House Bill 4113 extends the presumption to cover gynecological cancers. It also adds a presumption for bladder cancer, which is “occurring with increasing frequency and in younger firefighters across the nation,” testified Rep. Dacia Grayber, who has served as a firefighter for 22 years and still does when the legislature is not in session. Oregon will join 42 other states that already have a bladder cancer presumption for firefighters. The bill passed 55-3 in the House and 27-0 in the Senate. The governor signed it March 2.

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