Today in House Commerce we saw a complete disregard for a fair legislative process when the Secretary of Labor, Karin Brownlee, and her Deputy
of The War of Workers Secretary, Kathy Sparks, suggested three amendments to SB 416. Senate bill 416 is a pretty bland bill, there's nothing controversial about it and normally we wouldn't pay any attention to it. But the three amendments that Sparks suggested to the committee today are completely controversial bills. So much so that the Senate hasn't allowed these bills on to General Orders to be debate, which is in fact the reason Sparks cited for suggesting them as amendments today.
Anthony Brown, Chairman of the House Commerce committee, intends to work this bills tomorrow. With no hearing on the amendments from anyone other than Kathy Sparks. Rep Lous Ruiz (D - Kansas City) and Rep Gail Finney (D -Wichita) raised objections during the hearing today on the grounds that these bills haven't been properly vetted in the House, and questioned if the bills were just "minor non-controversial changes" like Kathy Sparks said then why hadn't the Senate take action on them. Here's a clue: The Senate hasn't taken action on them for good reason. These are terrible bills for workers statewide and stack the deck against hard working Kansans and their families.
The three bills Sparks suggested be placed as amendments on to SB 416 today are 1) SB 352; 2) SB 355; 3) HB 2638 (House version). Here's a little explanation of these bills:
Senate Bill 352 makes to the Employment Security Law do nothing more than give businesses a way out of complying with the commonsense provisions of the law and do it on the backs of Kansas workers and taxpayers. The bill was introduced Karin Brownlee. It would make dramatic changes to the definition of “misconduct” when determining the eligibility of unemployment compensation. The bill will shift the entire burden of proof from the employer to the employee, effectively making workers ineligible for unemployment compensation unless they were part of a direct lay off.
SB352 also grants the Secretary of Labor the right to intervene on behalf of an employer and appeal a decision of an Unemployment Insurance Judge if the decision is deemed too worker-friendly. The Bill does nothing more than allow dishonest employers to deny discharged workers the basic right to access unemployment insurance. It stacks the deck against the worker, and even gives employers a taxpayer-funded appeal avenue if somehow the worker does manage to prove their case to an Unemployment Insurance Judge.
The changes proposed in Senate Bill 352 would leave Kansans left with out any help after losing their jobs. This bill sends the message loud and clear to Kansas workers that they are less important than the interests of big business.
Senate Bill 355 was also introduced by the Secretary of Labor. It deletes language in the Wage Payment Act that requires the Secretary to appeal a wage payment decision on behalf of an employee if the wage payment was under 10K. This will unnecessarily force workers who have been denied wages to obtain their own representation or go through the process on their own if they want to appeal a decision. It also deletes language that allows the Department’s Division of Industrial Safety and Health to inspect private company worksites for safety and health hazards.
The Wage Payment Act today requires the Secretary of Labor to appeal on behalf of an employee with a valid claim for unpaid wages if the claim is less than $10,000. This is a commonsense provision that protects workers regardless of their ability to pay for representation.
Forcing an employee to obtain their own representation or navigate the appeal process themselves puts the working poor at a disadvantage even in instances where the Secretary of Labor agrees that they have a valid claim.
Creating the conditions for even one employer to get away with not paying what the Secretary determines to be a valid claim will do nothing to discourage other employers from pushing the boundaries of fairness.
House Bill 2638 (House Version) was passed through the House and sent to the Senate and earlier this week amended in the Senate Commerce Committee. Brownlee and Sparks don't much care for the changes made to the bill so they have decided to show complete disregard for the legislative process and decided they know better than legislator and make an attempt at getting what they want from the bill. In short, the bill reduces benefits to workers, reduces employer contributions to UI Trust Fund at a time when Kansas is paying back loans on the fund, and eliminates a body that is designed to give a balanced review of legislation like this.
The responsible way to make the UI Trust Fund self-sufficient again is to allow it to be replenished by Kansas businesses during times when fewer workers are depending on those benefits. The appropriate time to discuss lowering UI contributions is after a healthy reserve is built up in the Trust Fund, not when it is in the red.
Furthermore, attempting to couple a reduction in employer contributions to the UI Fund with a reduction in benefits to workers is as short-sighted as it is fundamentally unfair. Unemployment is not a paid vacation. When workers experience unemployment they do not stop needing to feed their families or pay their mortgages. Their local grocers and banks do not stop needing to be paid for the good and services they provide. But the impact that reductions in benefits or shortening the benefit period has means that those local businesses do lose customers. Unemployed workers put every dollar they have back into the economy while they are looking for a new job.
Finally, the bill would abolish the Employment Security Advisory Council. The Council was formed with the idea that proposals like those included in this bill would benefit from a thorough and balanced analysis by employee and employer representatives. This administration has failed to even call a meeting of the Council and therefore it is understandable that the Secretary would want to abolish it. However, employers and employees both stand to benefit from the careful consideration the Council could provide, and again, the Secretary is always able to ignore any inconvenient analyses it produces.
The Employment Security statutes on the books in Kansas are in place to support Kansas workers and businesses, not penalize them. The changes outlined in House Bill 2638 are one-sided and short-sighted.
We will continue working to keep these attacks on workers from passing and keep you updated on what happens at the Capitol.