Bipartisanship, Collaboration Help Overcome Labor Committee Agenda
Despite the pandemic’s destructive impact on Connecticut’s economy, the General Assembly’s Labor and Public Employees Committee proposed a package of costly new labor mandates this year that threatened to undermine the recovery.
CBIA and other employer organizations encountered a series of challenges during the 2021 legislative session as they addressed an agenda that seemingly was at odds with the needs of an economy struggling to find its footing.
At a February hearing, co-chair Rep. Robyn Porter (D-New Haven) refused to let committee members question CBIA’s Eric Gjede after he testified, despite questioning being allowed with previous witnesses.
“We represent thousands of businesses across Connecticut and they deserve to have their shot in this committee,” Gjede told Porter. “We are continuously denied opportunities it seems to make bill suggestions and meet with the committee.
“If you are going to be cutting me off today, I do hope that at some point you will provide the opportunity to members of the business community to have our side fairly heard as so many others were heard today.”
When the dust settled at the end of the session, the advocacy efforts of CBIA and fellow employer groups were largely successful in overcoming most of the damaging legislation while successfully advocating for a number of positive measures.
The following bills passed both the state Senate and House and were signed by the governor or are waiting for his signature or veto:
- SB 658: Requires businesses to recall their own, or a third party’s laid off employees in order of seniority if they were performing janitorial, building maintenance, security, food service, or hotel hospitality work in an office building and laid off at any time between March 10, 2020 and May 1, 2022. Employers must recall employees, or a third party’s employee that was performing a service, solely based on their seniority—not productivity, work, or disciplinary history, skill set, etc. Employers must text each laid off employee, or third party’s employee, any time a job that may match their skill set becomes available. It allows employees or third party employees five days to decide whether to take the available job or not—delaying the filling of job vacancies and allowing the circumvention of state work search obligations. The bill squeaked through in the final minutes of the legislative session.
- HB 5158: Clarifies certain requirements of rooms made available for employees to express breast milk. CBIA did not oppose the bill as the required accommodations, such as requiring a room with a lock, free from public view, an electrical outlet, and allowing an employee to bring in their own portable cold storage device, were not unreasonable.
- HB 5377: Unemployment benefits paid from July 1, 2019 through June 30, 2021 will not affect an employer’s experience rate for tax years beginning on or after Jan. 1, 2002. In addition, the bill disregards statewide benefits and taxable wages for calendar years 2020 and 2021 when calculating the unemployment tax rate that applies to new employers from Jan. 1, 2022. The bill was duplicative of protections included in HB 6633, which passed in the final days of session.
- HB 6380: Requires employers to provide the salary range upon an applicant’s hiring, upon a change in job title, and one time thereafter. Changes the law to require equal pay for comparable work rather than equal work. CBIA successfully sought positive changes to the bill, including additional exceptions such as differentials based on skill, credentials, and geographic location.
- HB 6476: Requires CHRO to develop a request for proposal for a study to determine whether there is discrimination in the awarding of state contracts.
- HB 6515: Adds definitions to the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities statutes that prohibit workplace discrimination based upon hairstyles commonly associated with particular races or ethnicities.
- HB 6633: This bill, which originated in the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee, implements comprehensive reforms to the state’s unemployment system, preventing COVID-19 related layoffs from impacting experience rates, reducing tax rates for 73% of Connecticut businesses, raising the taxable wage base, increasing the qualifying earnings threshold, freezing the maximum benefit amount for four years, and deferring benefit payments until severance payments are exhausted. In addition, the newly adopted state budget provides $155 million in federal relief funding to repay a portion of the loans the state took out when the unemployment trust fund became insolvent last year.
As with every legislative session, the success of CBIA’s advocacy efforts was largely determined by what bills did not pass both chambers.
Here’s the list of threats stopped by CBIA and allied groups:
Paid Sick Leave Expansion
- HB 6537: Expanded the state’s existing sick leave law that applies to businesses with 50 or more employees to all employees at every employer in the state.
- HB 6595 & SB 1002: Increased business costs in a variety of ways, including imposing presumptions employees contracted COVID-19 in the workplace, requiring employers to recall employees based on seniority, despite their skill level or productivity, and requiring the provision of 80 hours of sick leave, the cost of which will be born by employers of any size, that can be used by employees retroactively.
- SB 668: Required employers to ask employees about their desired number of hours and shift locations and provide a weekly estimate of hours. Any change in schedules without 14 days notice will result in financial penalties for the employer. Employers also would have needed to see if they are meeting employee scheduling requests before they can hire new employees.
Unreasonable Business Requirements
- HB 6343: Undermined the ability of certain businesses, like ride sharing and food delivery services, to hire independent contractors, micromanaging business models that have created jobs for hundreds of residents.
- HB 6383: Imposed a $10,000 per day fine for any phone or computer-based customer service providers that didn’t provide at least 100 days notice of attempting to relocate operations out of state. Requires any business conducting customer service work for the state to perform all such work entirely within the state.
- HB 6536: Imposed significant financial penalties for an employer’s failure to reimburse employees for all expenditures they believe were needed to work from home. There were no caps on what the employee can spend, and there is no neutral party that determines what is an is not necessary—creating unnecessary conflicts between employers and employees.
Elimination of Noncompete Agreements
- SB 906: Made any noncompete agreement invalid after July 1, 2021 if the employee was a non-exempt (hourly) employee, or if individual subject to it is an exempt employee earning three ties the minimum wage ($93,600 for a full time employee at $15 hourly) or an independent contractor earning five times the minimum wage ($75 hourly), or if the agreement was not made in anticipation of the sale of a business; if the employment relationship was ended by the employer, including for misconduct; or if the employee leaves employment because they believe they have good cause attributable to the employer. Imposes similar restrictions on exclusivity agreements.
- HB 6379: Made any noncompete agreement invalid after July 1, 2021 if the employee makes less than twice the minimum wage, or if the agreement was not made in anticipation of the sale of a business, if the employment relationship was ended by the employer, or if the employee leaves employment because they believe they have good cause attributable to the employer.
Criminal Background Checks
- HB 6474: Allowed job applicants with a criminal history to bring a discrimination claim against an employer that denies employment based on that history, unless the employer can prove there was a substantial nexus between the criminal history and the job being sought, there is substantial evidence the individual has not been rehabilitated, and insufficient time has elapsed since the crime. The bill was not clear on how to meet these burdens of proof.
Outsourcing the Attorney General’s Powers
- HB 6475: Outsourced the power of the attorney general and allowed third parties to bring public enforcement actions against businesses while financial penalties grow exponentially. This scheme was so thoroughly abused in California that businesses were often forced to settle even when they are not in the wrong. Further, studies have found that 75% of the settlements did not protected aggrieved employees, but were used to enrich the state and third parties.
The good news is that the most of the harmful bills were stopped throughout the legislative process, based on advocacy efforts and the lack of broad support for costly workplace mandates.
Gjede acknowledged the level of bipartisanship among lawmakers this year, the willingness of many to collaborate with the business community, and the emergence of a group of moderate House Democrats that spoke out on critical economic and fiscal issues.
He also thanked the bipartisan group of 55 state lawmakers who signed the organization’s Rebuilding Connecticut pledge for following through by supporting those policy priorities throughout the session.
“Businesses are playing a critical role as the state continues to navigate the pandemic,” he said.
“There was real recognition of that this year and a focus on addressing the critical issues impacting the recovery, the state’s competitiveness, and the particular need to support small businesses.”
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