By TIM ROWDEN
Jefferson City – Republican lawmakers are continuing their relentless attacks on workers in the Missouri Legislature this session with bills targeting victims of asbestos poisoning, mechanical licensing requirements and a minimum wage increase approved by voters.
Republicans latest corporate “tort reform” effort is focused on protecting companies from lawsuits, even when their negligence results in a fatal illness.
After a nearly 19-hour filibuster by Democrats, the Republican-controlled Missouri Senate, on Feb. 26, backed off of legislation to run-out-the-clock on victims of asbestos poisoning and their families – increasing the likelihood Mesothelioma victims will die before they get their day in court – and instead pushed through a bill that would change how punitive damages are handled by the courts.
Senate Bill 575, sponsored by Sen. Bill Eigel (R-Weldon Spring) would institute time limits for providing certain materials during a lawsuit. Critics said the measure appeared designed to prevent Mesothelioma victims’ cases from being heard before their deaths, which tend to quickly follow a diagnosis.
Democrats, led by Minority Leader Gina Walsh (D-Bellefontaine Neighbors), a retired member of Heat and Frost Insulators Local 1 (formerly the Asbestos Workers union) said the changes would hurt union tradespeople ranging from insulation installers to electricians who work in buildings containing asbestos.
“This legislation is another example of wealthy corporations trying to rig the system against working Missourians,” Walsh said of the bill.
“This legislation was strongly opposed by veterans organizations and cancer victims, but because it was being propped up by politically connected insurance lobbyists, the bill’s backers were determined to get it passed,” she said. “It is shameful that Republicans in the Senate chose to side with politically connected lobbyists over Missourians dying from cancer.”
In exchange for the asbestos bill being pulled, Democrats agreed to end their filibuster not to block separate legislation, Senate Bill 591, that would restrict punitive damage awards in civil lawsuits for people who have been wronged by corporate negligence.
The Senate granted first-round approval to SB 591 on a voice vote right after the asbestos filibuster ended. The measure needs a final vote in the Senate chamber before advancing to the House.
In a clear handout to low-wage, non-union contractors, Senate Bill 559, sponsored by Sen. Dave Schatz (R-Sullivan) and House Bill 1891, sponsored by Rep. Nick Schroer (R-O’Fallon) both seek to establish the Missouri Statewide Mechanical Contractor Licensing Act requiring companies – regardless of size – to have only one licensed mechanical contractor on staff to perform work on heating and cooling systems, boilers, water heaters, piping, gas systems, solar energy, plumbing, refrigeration, medical piping, fire suppression and other mechanical systems.
State Rep. Doug Beck (D-Affton), a member of Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 562 and candidate for state Senate in the 1st District, compared the bill to requiring hospitals to have only one licensed doctor on staff.
“This would affect quite a few trades,” Beck said. “It would require only one person in the company to be licensed, nobody else would have to be licensed. Everybody else would be under their supervision, whether that person is there or not.. “It would be like going to a hospital and there would be one doctor there and everybody else would be on their honor, and they could do all the things that a doctor would do. That’s what this bill is promoting.
“It’s crazy,” Beck said.
The Missouri House of Representatives voted 94-53 last week to send Republican-sponsored legislation to the Senate that would partially repeal the minimum wage increase overwhelmingly approved Missouri voters in 2018.
Missouri voters approved the wage-hike measure, Proposition B, with 62.3 percent support in November 2018. It gradually increases the standard statewide minimum wage to $12 an hour over several years, ending in 2023. So far, two of five annual incremental increases have taken effect to put the state wage floor at $9.45 an hour. The minimum wage is set to increase to $10.30 an hour on Jan. 1, 2021.
House Bill 1559, sponsored by Rep. Tim Remole (R-Excello) would exempt private and religious schools from following Proposition B and allow them to go back to paying the previous statewide minimum wage of $7.85 an hour – allowing them to cut the wages of their lowest paid employees who are now paid $9.45 an hour.
Democrats warned that carving out one job sector from the minimum wage law could begin undermining the intent of requiring businesses to pay a fair wage.
“This bill is essentially telling them they are less than anyone else when they are just trying to get by,” said Rep. Rasheen Aldridge (D-St. Louis). “People need to make a livable wage. This is, honestly, shameful that we’re trying to take away money from teachers.”
Democrats unanimously opposed the bill; all but nine Republicans supported it.
Republicans who opposed the bill included: Vic Allred of Parkville; Andrew McDaniel of Deering; Mike McGirl of Potosi; Jeff Pogue of Salem; Rodger Reedy of Windsor; Lane Roberts of Joplin; Shane Roden, of Cedar Hill; Becky Ruth of Festus; and Nate Tate of Sinclair.
Republicans attempted a similar bill last year, but it died for lack of action in the Senate.