By CARL GREEN
Most of the news coming from the Illinois Legislature recently has concerned the state’s pension backlog, but while that noisy fight has been going on, other issues important to workers have been quietly stirring.
For one thing, this spring could finally see action on the Responsible Bidder legislation that passed the House last spring but has been bottled up in the Senate. That bill would extend the existing Responsible Bidder law to contracts at all levels of government, possibly making many new jobs available to union workers.
The Responsible Bidder law currently covers all bidding on the state level. In order to bid, a contractor must demonstrate he is a “Responsible Bidder” by showing the ability to get the job done right, pay at prevailing wages, provide apprentice training and meet state business requirements such as insurance.
It does not demand that union workers be hired, but doing so will help the contractors meet the requirements, so the bill is seen as a way to bring new work to unions. It would also screen out unscrupulous, low-ball bidders that don’t hire union and that do harm legitimate contractors.
Bill sponsor Rep. Jay Hoffman (D-Belleville), chairman of the Labor and Commerce Committee, said the AFL-CIO plans to make this bill a top priority for the upcoming legislation session.
“There will be a huge push on this this spring,” he told the Labor Tribune in an interview.
The holdup has come from some smaller contractors concerned they won’t be able to meet the requirements, and some small local governments have also objected.
But Hoffman notes that the legislation only affects jobs that are being bid, and the truly small jobs are already below the threshold that requires bidding anyway. Supporters of the bill are working with the objectors to try to meet their concerns, he noted.
Meanwhile, quite a few local governments have adopted the bill’s language on their own. “They want to make sure their projects are done right and done on time,” Hoffman said. “It has worked very well.
“It makes perfect sense that contractors seeking to do public jobs should have the basic ability to perform the work, and the financial wherewithal to pay for it, and the employee training that will be needed,” Hoffman said.
The bill passed in the House on a 60-50 vote. Supporters included Hoffman, Dan Beiser (D-Alton) and Eddie Jackson (D-East St. Louis). Beiser had signed on as a co-sponsor.
While the Responsible Bidder bill languished in the Senate, both chambers approved another bill that could have far-reaching effects on workers in Illinois. The governor signed it and it went into effect on Jan. 1.
Laws already exist to protect workers from being treated unfairly by employers by forcing them to work as independent contractors instead of as employees, even though they may be performing all the functions of employees. They don’t get benefits, pensions, taxes withheld, or any of the protections regular employees are entitled to by law. Contractors also avoid paying their share of taxes on those workers.
But the Department of Labor cannot enforce these laws unless workers file complaints, and “non-employee” workers don’t file those complaints because they fear losing their jobs, bad as they may be. So the new law requires contractors to report all payments they make to such “non-employees.”
“This new law will ensure that contractors are following the law and cannot avoid taxes they are required to pay,” said Hoffman, who also sponsored this bill. “It will also provide the Illinois Department of Labor with useful information that they can use to better track the practices of contractors across the state.”
The law has two exemptions – retail businesses and contractors who meet the state’s test for being considered “responsible bidders.”
Contractors found to have violated this act two or more times within five years will be barred from receiving any state contract for four years from the date of the last violation.
“I would like to thank my colleagues for supporting this piece of legislation, and I’m glad it is now law,” Hoffman added. “This measure will go far in evening the playing field for contractors who follow the rules.”
The bill passed the House 72-44, with Hoffman, Beiser and Jackson voting for it, and passed the Senate 35-19, with local senators Bill Haine (D-Alton) and James Clayborne (D-East St. Louis) voting for it.
Hoffman said the Building Trades unions, especially the Carpenters groups, made this bill a top priority.
He is interested in seeing how the new law will be enforced. “If it’s done right, it will result in people being treated fairly,” he said.