By MALLORY GRUBEN
The 2023 session of the Oregon Legislature reached its midpoint April 7, and a number of labor-backed bills in the Oregon Legislature appear to have good chances of becoming law, including measures to increase Oregon OSHA’s fines, and modernize the organizing process for public sector unions.
Others of the roughly 50 bills supported by labor organizations at the start of the session probably won’t make it through this year. Under rules the legislature set for this session, policy bills that weren’t approved by the first committee they were assigned to by April 4 are considered dead. A proposal to restore transit workers’ right to strike died because of that rule, and so did a measure to set responsible contracting standards for projects that get federal American Rescue Plan Act funding.
Here’s where other top labor-backed bills currently stand:
- Tougher penalties for unsafe workplaces (SB 592): The Keeping Oregon Workers Safe Act would increase fines for workplace safety violations to bring Oregon OSHA penalties up from the lowest in the nation. It is the top priority for the Oregon AFL-CIO. It passed the Senate 20-10 on March 8 and awaits a hearing in the House Business and Labor Committee.
- Increase penalties for assault of on-duty transit workers (SB 787): Under current Oregon law, it’s a felony to assault a transit worker while the vehicle is moving. But if the driver stops, the penalty drops to a misdemeanor. Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757 wants lawmakers to close the loophole and make any assault that happens while a worker is on-duty a felony. The bill passed the Senate 27-2 March 9 and was referred to the House Judiciary Committee.
- Prevailing wage for demolition and waste removal (SB 594): Oregon and Southern Idaho District Council of Laborers wants to close another loophole in existing law. Right now, demolition and hazardous waste removal for public works projects are not included under the types of work that require a prevailing wage, so public agencies can divide up a project in an attempt to pay less for those services. The bill passed the Senate 17-12 March 1; all 11 Republicans voted no. Now it’s waiting for a hearing in the House Business and Labor Committee.
- 21st century union cards (HB 2573): Union organizers want lawmakers to add the option for public sector workers to sign union authorization cards online. That would modernize organizing and align with what’s already allowed in the private sector. The bill passed the House 40-16 on March 21; all those opposed were Republicans, though six Republicans also voted yes. The bill had a work session in the Senate Labor and Business Committee April 18.
- A better BOLI budget (SB 5515): Oregon Business and Industry Political Director Derek Sangston joked with lawmakers that it’s rare to see labor and business support the same bills, but both sides say it makes sense to enforce employment laws already on the books. And to do that, the Bureau of Labor and Industries needs appropriate funding. Labor and business supports Labor Commissioner Christina Stephenson’s request for funding to add or retain nine staff positions in the agency and maintain support for pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship programs. Stephenson made her case with a 90-slide presentation to the Joint Ways and Means Committee in early March. No more meetings are scheduled yet. (The Legislature’s committee deadline does not apply to bills in certain committees, including Ways and Means).
- Safe staffing in hospitals (HB 2697): HB 2697 has been called historic, groundbreaking, and a game changer. This safe staffing bill was amended collaboratively by labor and hospital management to set minimum standards for nurse staffing plans in hospitals and create penalties for facilities that failed to follow those ratios. It also establishes staffing committees with all other workers in healthcare facilities. The House Behavioral Health and Health Care Committee moved it to the Joint Ways and Means Committee on a 7-3 vote; it awaits a hearing.
- Union rights for cannabis workers (HB 3183): This bill, which UFCW Local 555 calls its top priority, would require licensed cannabis entities to enter in labor peace agreements in which they pledge not to disrupt union campaigns and agree to give union organizers access to employees, in exchange for union commitments not to strike, boycott, or picket. So far California, New York, and New Jersey have passed laws along similar lines. It awaits a hearing in the House Committee on Rules after moving from the House Business and Labor Committee on a party-line 6-5 vote.
- Unemployment benefits for classified school staff (SB 489): Existing law prevents school bus drivers, janitors, teachers aids, and other classified staff — often part-time workers with the lowest wages — from receiving unemployment benefits over the summer months, even though their peers working as contractors in the same jobs can apply for the assistance. This bill would remove some restrictions to open the program to classified staff. On April 4, the Senate Education Committee voted 6-1 to send the bill to the floor.
- Earlier retirement for 911 operators and state hospital workers (HB 2701): A longtime priority of Oregon AFSCME, this bill would lower the minimum retirement age under the Public Employment Retirement System for 911 operators and workers at Oregon State Hospital. It would also boost retirement benefits for those workers. The bill moved to Ways and Means after a 6-1 vote of support in the House Emergency Management Committee.
- ‘Just cause’ for public K-12 employees (SB 283): Right now, classified staff like teachers aides and secretaries are at-will employees in almost a quarter of Oregon’s school districts. This bill, a priority of Oregon School Employees Association, would require that employers have ‘just cause’ to terminate them, and would also help boost wages for special education staff and support substitute teachers. The bill moved with bipartisan support in the Senate Education Committee and awaits a hearing in Ways and Means.
- Workforce equity in public improvement for schools (HB 2649): HB 2649 would expand apprenticeship requirements and set diversity standards for publicly funded projects under Oregon Department of Transportation and public universities and colleges. The bill passed the House Business and Labor Committee 6-5 on strict party lines, with Republicans opposed. It heads next to Ways and Means.