The Connecticut state Senate this week approved legislation granting unemployment benefits to striking workers.

SB 317 was the first in a series of costly new workplace mandates approved by the legislature's Labor and Public Employees Committee this session to be acted on by either the Senate or the House.

Labor Committee co-chair Sen. Julie Kushner (D-Danbury) during the Senate's April 13 debate on SB 317.

The measure passed on a 19-13 vote April 13, with Sen. Dennis Bradley (D-Bridgeport) the only Democrat joining all Republican senators in opposition.

Four senators—Mary Abrams (D-Meriden), Dan Champagne (R-Vernon), Joan Hartley (D-Waterbury), and Rick Lopes (D-New Britain)—were absent.

Current law requires that workers have lost their job, are available for work, and searching for a new job to claim unemployment benefits.

'Troubling Sign'

CBIA's Eric Gjede said the bill's passage "sends a troubling sign about where lawmakers' priorities lie this year."

"Businesses are still trying to recover from pandemic lockdowns and are battling inflation, supply chain bottlenecks, and a crippling labor shortage," he said. "Where's the focus on the economic issues?

"The irony of this bill is not lost on employers, who are the sole revenue source for the unemployment trust fund, and already face a 22% hike in their unemployment taxes because of the pandemic.

"Rather than alleviate the burden facing struggling small businesses, the Senate instead elected to add to employers' unemployment cost burdens."

Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff (D-Norwalk) supported the bill, calling it "a matter of fairness."

"Workers are our neighbors, our friends," he said. "That’s who we’re trying to protect."

Contradiction

Republican senators said the bill was anti-business and contradicted the objective of the state's unemployment trust fund.

Connecticut borrowed $888 million from the federal government in 2020 and 2021 to pay record-high pandemic-related unemployment benefit claims.

Employers have repaid $300 million, with federal COVID relief funds covering $125 million—plus $26 million in interest—and face four years of tax hikes, beginning this fall, to pay off the balance.

“This policy before us is representative or even symbolic of just how far the majority party has gone when it comes to making labor policy in the state of Connecticut,” said Sen. Rob Sampson (R-Southington).

Sen. Heather Somers (R-Mystic) called SB 317 "the most anti-business bill I have seen. It's insulting to every small business in the state."

The day after the Senate vote, news broke that the salary increases and bonus payments the Lamont administration negotiated with unionized state employees will cost taxpayers almost $1.9 billion over four years.

The legislature's Appropriations Committee will hold a public hearing on the agreement April 18 before the full General Assembly acts on it.

Additional Mandates

The state House acted on another Labor Committee mandate following the Senate vote, approving legislation making the permanent replacement of a striking worker an unfair labor practice.

HB 5444, which passed the House on a 91-49 party line vote, primarily applies to employers in agriculture, those who employ domestic workers, and independent contractors.

Gjede warned that the Senate and House will be considering additional workplace mandates as the legislative session counts down to its May 4 adjournment.

He called SB 163, which drastically restricts workplace communications, "one of the most troubling bills of the entire session."

Backed by labor unions, SB 163 is the latest in a decade-long string of so-called captive audience bills debated by the General Assembly.

All have foundered, often gaining support in certain committees before failing to gain traction on either the House or Senate floor—primarily based on concerns the bills preempt federal labor law.

"The fact that some lawmakers keep pushing, year after year, a bill that clearly contravenes federal law is concerning enough," said CBIA president and CEO Chris DiPentima.

"That they're doing so at a time when employers—particularly small businesses—are struggling with so many challenges in the wake of the pandemic is just offensive."

Scheduling, Noncompetes

The state House is expected to act soon on HB 5353, which requires employers in the retail, restaurant, and hospitality industries that have 500 or more employees, or where all franchisees collectively have 30 or more locations, to provide 14 days notice of work schedules.

Any deviation from that schedule results in financial penalties to the employer.

Legislation invalidating noncompete agreements for hourly workers, exempt employees earning not less than three times the minimum wage, or independent contractors earning less than five times the minimum wage could also be voted on in the House soon.

HB 5249 also applies if an employee subjectively believes an employment relationship ended for good cause attributable to the employer.

"There are still opportunities for policymakers to do the right thing for small businesses, but we're running out of time."

CBIA's Eric Gjede

Gjede said the mandates illustrated the growing disconnect between policymakers and "Connecticut's very real need to address the labor shortage crisis and get our economy moving again."

"We heard firsthand this week at Connecticut Business Day the struggles that employers are experiencing," he said.

"New costs and labor mandates are the last thing they need right now, not to mention that legislative budget proposals lack meaningful tax relief for small businesses.

"There are still opportunities for policymakers to do the right thing, particularly for small businesses, but we're quickly running out of time."


For more information, contact CBIA's Eric Gjede (860.480.1784) | @egjede