As the 2017 session of the legislature draws to a close, it’s perhaps an apt time to assess the state of law-making in Oregon as it affects the most vulnerable workers in the state. It’s kind of a mixed bag.
An important dynamic during this past session was that the leadership wanted new taxes to close a looming budget deficit, and evidently felt that it was necessary to have business buy-in for whatever taxes were to be passed. During most of the session, this gave the business lobby a huge advantage in being able to kill, modify or stall bills they did not like. Much of the wage theft agenda fell victim to this dynamic. Many other pro-worker initiatives also were initially stalled.
On the other hand, especially after the talks about taxes finally failed, a number of very important, pro-worker measures were enacted, making this, on balance, a fairly successful session for workers, especially immigrants. Licensing of building services contractors, the nation’s first law entitling at least some workers to fair scheduling, penalties for making workers submit false wage records, medical coverage for all children in Oregon, regardless of immigrant status, a ban on state agencies disclosing personal data to assist federal immigration agencies, implementation of anti-profiling recommendations, health equity, equal pay for equal work for all suspect classes, and a procedure for formerly incarcerated workers to obtain a certificate of compliance with law in order to find work were all adopted by the end of the session.
These are important advances for working people and should be celebrated. Legislators involved should be congratulated.
On the other hand, the legislature in many respects failed in the task of making sure that workers who labor get paid fairly for their work. Wage theft is a huge and growing problem in Oregon, affecting workers, fair employers and our communities. The bills offered by the Coalition to Stop Wage Theft died in the legislative process. Workers not paid the minimum wage must still confront the risk of having huge attorneys’ fees assessed against them; efforts to make it easier to collect wage judgments and help for community organizations to help low wage workers through the complicated wage collection process were not enacted.
So it was kind of a mixed bag.