Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury, and Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, lead the state's Labor and Public Employees Committee. They are set to consider a bill this year that would provide financial relief to thousands of people who received unemployment benefits during the pandemic, but were later told that they needed to repay that money. Thomas Breen / New Haven Independent
Before the pandemic, Micali Marison, left, loads empty boxes on a pallet for co-worker Calvil Leslie after restocking the shelves at a Walmart, the nation’s largest private-sector employer. The company recently announced wage increases, Joe Amon / Connecticut Public Radio/NENC
Before the pandemic, Micali Marison, left, loads empty boxes on a pallet for co-worker Calvil Leslie after restocking the shelves at a Walmart, the nation’s largest private-sector employer. The company recently announced wage increases, Joe Amon / Connecticut Public Radio/NENC

The gradual trend of companies relying on gig workers, the sudden blurring of home and work during the pandemic, and the decades-long weakening of unions are all contributing to a push by Connecticut lawmakers to resolve through legislation questions once answered by collective bargaining.

Should seniority determine who gets called back after a layoff? Must an employer reimburse a remote worker for internet access? What notice is owed about schedule changes, especially important to those who juggle more than one job or need care for children?

With only 6% of private-sector workers represented by unions, state lawmakers say they have a role in the conversation.

“I think that we have an obligation to address the changing nature of work,” said Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury, a retired UAW executive who co-chairs the committee overseeing labor legislation. “And if you look at what’s happened over the last many decades … at the same time that work has changed, we’ve seen income inequality absolutely go through the roof.”

Employers and trade groups, some with a national reach, recoil at the reach of some bills filed this year, calling them an intrusion in labor-management relations while businesses struggle to regain their footing during a recession induced by COVID-19. Proponents call them a necessary correction in a rapidly evolving world.

“I do think we are starting to see more and more of these bills,” said Eric Gjede, the vice president of government affairs at the Connecticut Business and Industry Association. “It’s trying to create a flat level of benefits, the same requirements in every workplace, regardless of size or industry.”

Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, said the relationships between employer and employee have always rippled across society, appropriately inviting the attention of policy makers.

What’s new is that lawmakers are taking the lead, not codifying and broadening gains won by labor in select industries, as was the case in 1938 when Congress banned child labor and established a standard work week — first 44 hours, now 40 — and a minimum wage in many industries.

From left, the co-chairs of the labor committee: Sen. Julie Kushner and Rep. Robyn Porter. Thomas Breen / New Haven Independent

“The erosion of labor membership in the private sector has been damaging in so many ways for our state, for our economy, in terms of enlightened public policy and social policy,” Looney said. “Unions tend to drive issues not only regarding wages for their own members, but also try to help to create a sort of labor standard in the broader community.”

Union density, the percentage of unionized workers, has shrunk by half since 1983, when the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking the data consistently. It dropped from 20.1% to 10.8% in 2020, according to survey data released last month. Union density in the public sector was 34.8%, more than five times the 6.3% in the private sector.

About 17% of the overall work force in Connecticut were union members in 2020, a number that has been relatively stable since 2015, other than a dip to 14.5% in 2019 that unions see as a statistical fluke due to the limited sample size.

“Even when the union density was much higher, we always pushed for things for all workers,” said Sal Luciano, the president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO. “The deck is always stacked against working people.”

In 2019, the General Assembly passed a law raising the minimum wage in increments to $15 in 2023. It also created a paid family and medical leave program, essentially a mandated disability insurance benefit for private-sector workers at a cost of one half of 1% of wages.

Several of the bills filed this year were the subject of public hearings Thursday before the Labor and Public Employees Committee, long the venue for wedge issues separating Democrats from Republicans and labor from management.

House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford, said he sees inconsistencies in the legislature’s approach to what should and shouldn’t be left to collective bargaining.

Unions and many Democrats object to setting public-sector pension benefits by law, not through bargaining, but they embrace using the legislative process to mandate benefits, such requiring time off for state employees who donate organs, Candelora said.

“As laudable as that concept is, those are all matters of collective bargaining,” said Candelora, a business owner. “And you can’t have it both ways and tell Republicans that we can’t statutorily amend pension benefits, but then we can come in and legislate other benefits. To me, it is a direct contradiction.”

One of the bills heard Thursday was House Bill 5198, filed by a member of his caucus, Rep. David Yaccarino, R-North Haven. The measure would set standards for when employers must reimburse employees for broadband, cell phones and other things necessary to work from home.

While the concept resonates especially loudly during the pandemic, Yaccarino filed a similar bill years ago at the urging of a constituent, Frank Tropeano, who was assigned by his then-employer, a health insurer, to work from home. 

Tropeano said his company was able to shed office space but shifted the burden for technology to its employees.

Sen. Rob Sampson of Wolcott, the ranking Republican on the labor committee, told him he was opposed on principle to nearly any intrusion by government into the employer-employee relationship, which he called “a free agreement between two people.”

Tropeano there is an imbalance in the relationship between employer and employee if the employer ceases to act in good faith. But Gjede of CBIA said businesses are ready to discuss what types of expenses should be reimbursable under state law.

House Bill 6343, proposed by four Democrats, is intended to protect gig workers by tightening the definition of an independent contractor under state law.

A labor lawyer, Richard Hayber, said the bill should redefine a three-prong legal test of who is an employee, and entitled to benefits, as opposed to an independent contractor. One of the prongs is whether a worker provides service outside the employer’s place of business.

“But this loophole ignores the present realities of our workforce, a large portion of which work at home or on the road, such as Grubhub drivers,” Hayber said. “These workers clearly perform duties that go to the heart of the business.”

The measure is opposed by the Internet Association, a trade group whose members include Grubhub, Amazon, Google, Uber and Lyft, among others.

In written testimony, the association complained the bill would “fundamentally change how internet companies that provide needed economic opportunities to residents and businesses struggling to survive in a pandemic operate in Connecticut. Moreover, this proposal would cause significant economic hardship for numerous businesses already struggling to maintain a workforce and continue operating during the COVID emergency.”

Looney is the sponsor of Senate Bill 658, a bill requiring employers to respect seniority when calling back workers after a layoff during the pandemic. He said his bill was prompted by the layoffs of hundreds of thousands of workers in Connecticut since the detection of COVID in March. 

Without union contracts protecting seniority, Looney said, he fears that older workers will remain sidelined as employers call back laid-off employees. Others said there is a risk of racial discrimination, as well.

“While job loss has been universal, it has been particularly devastating to workers of color. During the first peak of the pandemic in April 2020, Latino workers had the highest unemployment rate nationally at nearly 19%, followed by Black workers at 16.4%. White workers had the lowest unemployment level at approximately 13%,” said Sean Edmund Rogers, a professor of industrial relations  at the University of Rhode Island.

Preliminary data indicates a higher percentage of white workers were called back.

Looney also is a sponsor of Senate Bill 668, which would require advance notice for scheduling changes, though the current version is a statement of intent, not a fully drafted bill. How much notice would be required is to be determined.

The bill was opposed as impractical by the Connecticut Hospital Association and the Connecticut Restaurant Association. 

Scott Dolch, the executive director of the restaurant group, said 600 restaurants have gone out of business during the pandemic, and considering any bill complicating operations for restaurants was “thoughtless.”

There may be an effort to limit its reach to big box retailers such as Walmart, the nation’s largest private-sector employer and a notorious foe of unions. The rationale is the national chains have the wherewithal to offer decent notice on work schedules.

When Kushner was a UAW executive, the union organized workers at Foxwoods Resort Casino, where reliable scheduling was an issue, she said.

“And we were really effective in negotiating improvements for the workers through compromise,” Kushner said. “And so I think I do have the perspective that it can be done, it can be done fairly, and it can be done in a way that does not disadvantage the employer.”

“On the other hand,” she said, “strictly doing it through collective bargaining is impractical for the large numbers of workers that don’t have those collective bargaining rights or are not unionized.”

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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