This legislative session, the Oregon Coalition to Stop Wage Theft is working to pass several important bills in the Oregon legislature. Our Coalition has now grown to over 40 groups, thanks to the addition of the Northwest Forest Worker Center. We look forward to working with all of our allies to pass these significant pieces of legislation.
The first bill tackles the problem of retaliation. Too often, an employee who makes a wage complaint gets fired or suffers other dire consequences as a result. This is illegal, but it is very difficult to prove that the employer was motivated by a desire to retaliate. Our bill would create a rebuttable presumption of retaliation if adverse employment action is taken within 90 days of a wage complaint. The bill would also require that an employer provide, if requested, a written statement as to why an employee was fired. This will make it easier to prove retaliation by preventing an employer from changing its story along the way.
We also have a novel bill that would establish a mechanism to fund non-profits that work on helping victims of wage theft. All wages collected by the Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI) would result in a mandatory 20% surcharge that would go into a fund administered by BOLI to make grants to non-profits to assist workers in claiming their wages through outreach, education, research and referral work.
Our other bills will enhance private remedies for wage theft. Sometimes, workers need lawyers to help collect their wages. But there are impediments in the law that make it hard for workers to effectively enforce their rights. These bills will do three things. First will be to change the language in two key wage statutes from "prevailing party" to "prevailing plaintiff" regarding availability of attorneys’ fees when the case is over. This will allow workers to bring suit without the threat of having to pay their employer's attorneys’ fees. (An employee who brings a frivolous case could still be liable for their employer's attorneys’ fees.) Second, this legislation will allow a worker to place a labor lien on an employer's property if he or she is not paid. Oregon already has labor liens in a few specific industries, but the lien is not placed on the employer's property. A labor lien can currently be placed only on the property being worked on, for example, a customer's car in a mechanic's shop, or a home under construction. This will make the process fairer in that the lien will be placed on the property of the person who has not paid the worker, for example on the tools or vehicle of the employer and will make liens available to workers in other fields. The final provision of the legislation deals with misclassifying a worker as an independent contractor when they are actually an employee, or claiming that the employee works for someone else. It will create a rebuttable presumption that an employee doing the integral work of a business is an employee of the business. This will help make it much easier to hold the party that benefited from the work responsible for paying.
We are currently meeting with legislators to discuss these important bills. Please mark your calendars for Wage Theft Lobby Day on February 13th at the State Capitol in Salem. Next month's eNews will include more details. We hope to see you there!