Worker-friendly laws finally have a chance in Illinois

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By CARL GREEN
Illinois Correspondent

ILLINOIS CAPITOL in Springfield.

Springfield, IL – Labor-allied Democratic legislators with strong voting majorities in the Illinois House and Senate are turning back the clock on former Gov. Bruce Rauner, who for years could be counted on to veto any bills favorable to Labor.

With some exceptions, Democrats were usually unable to override those vetoes, but now, with an ally in the office of Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, they have a chance to actually move the ball forward.

Key leaders in the Legislature who are introducing worker-friendly bills and hold sway about others include:

  • Representative Jay Hoffman (D-Swansea), a longtime Labor supporter who now is assistant majority leader and serves on the House Labor and Commerce Committee.
  • Representative Katie Stuart (D-Edwardsville) asserting herself in her second term and as a member of the House Labor and Commerce Committee.
  • Senator Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill), now an established leader on education and Labor issues.

Here are reports on some – but not close to all – of the Labor bills now moving toward becoming law:

WORKERS COMPENSATION
• Senate Bill 1596 amends the Illinois Workers Compensation Act and Occupational Diseases Act to expand workers’ access to the legal system in cases where workers have developed latent illnesses or suffered injuries after coming in contact with asbestos or other toxic substances at work.

The bill is a response to a 2015 Illinois Supreme Court case involving the declining health and eventual death of a worker who was exposed to asbestos on the job. The court did not dispute the employer’s negligence but cited statute of limitations laws that required legal action to be taken earlier than it occurred in that case.

This bill removes the statute of limitations from such cases.

The bill passed the House and Senate largely on party lines. Hoffman and Stuart were among eight co-sponsors in the House.

“Workers who are exposed to asbestos may not develop an illness for upwards of 30 years in some cases,” Hoffman said. “Many become sick with mesothelioma, which can result in death, and it is unjust to slam the door on compensation to these victims and their families. With this bill, we are seeking a legislative solution to prevent further injustices.”

• Hoffman also filed House Bill 269, which would strengthen the Worker’s Compensation Act with numerous changes including permitting the Workers’ Compensation Commission to issue a work-stop order pending a ruling from the Commission if an employer’s business is declared to be extra hazardous, raising the maximum allowable penalty for noncompliance with insurance requirements from $2,000 to $10,000, and doubling the maximum allowable penalties to $1,000 per day with a minimum penalty of $20,000, for employers found to be in noncompliance more than once. The bill is awaiting action in the House.

UNDERGROUND ECONOMY
• House Bill 358, introduced by Hoffman, would give the Attorney General’s office new powers by establishing a Workers’ Protection Unit and Worker Protection Task Force that will work with Labor, community and business groups to combat the “underground economy” in which workers are exploited by unsafe conditions and low pay while legitimate businesses are undercut.
“Businesses that operate ‘off the books’ put a greater burden on taxpayers by hurting the state’s ability to provide critical services,” the bill states. “Compliant businesses cannot compete against those who gain an unfair advantage by evading their responsibilities.”

The Senate version of the bill, SB 161, passed unanimously through the Senate Judiciary Committee. Last year’s version was vetoed and killed by Rauner.

“Working men and women are the foundation of our communities, and they deserve greater protections to ensure job security,” Hoffman said. “I am introducing this bill because it is clear that we need to address existing flaws and improprieties in the workplace to make sure the system is not failing workers.”

MAKE IT IN ILLINOIS, USA
To stimulate job growth, Hoffman introduced two proposals to prioritize local jobs and keep taxpayer dollars in the state.

• House Bill 356 would require state agencies to purchase American-made products in the process of buying products or goods.

• House Bill 357 would give preference to products manufactured in Illinois in the state’s purchasing process whenever possible. If there is not a viable option to purchase Illinois-specific products, state agencies would still be required to purchase American-made products.

Co-sponsors on both bills include Stuart and Rep. Monica Bristow (D-Godfrey).

TEACHER SALARIES
• Manar and Stuart are chief sponsors of legislation (SB 10 and HB 2078) to address Illinois’ ongoing teacher shortage by raising the minimum salary for educators across the state to $40,000 by the 2023-24 school year. Hoffman is a co-sponsor.

The current minimums, set 38 years ago, are $11,000 for those with a master’s degree, $10,000 with a bachelor’s degree and $9,000 for those without a four-year degree.

Manar says teachers with master’s degrees in his district are known to live under the federal poverty level.

“Fewer talented young people are going into the teaching profession for numerous reasons, one of which is pay,” he said.

“To me, this is an issue of respect – for the teaching profession and for the credentials we ask teachers to bring to the table.”

PROMPT PAYMENT ON CONSTRUCTION
• The Senate has already passed the Contractor Prompt Payment Act (Senate Bill 1636) which would limit retainers withheld from construction contracts to no more than 10 percent before completion of 50 percent and no more than five percent after that.

Labor is working with the Illinois Mechanical and Specialty Construction Association on the bill, which passed in the Senate March 27. A companion bill, HB 2916, awaits action in the House. A similar bill passed last year but did not survive Rauner’s veto.

“That would be good for our health and welfare and pensions fund, so when these contractors get into money crunches, they won’t be holding the money for so long,” said Totsie Bailey, executive secretary-treasurer of the Southwestern Illinois Building and Construction Trades Council.

Nick Dodson, a retired member of Plumbers and Gasfitters Local 360 in Collinsville, explained how limiting the retainer is important is to workers.

“A large percentage of our union brothers and sisters work for small contractors who are hurt by this practice. Many of these small contractors are former union journeymen, and we need these start-ups to be successful so they can hire future union members,” he said.

“Part of the reasoning behind retainage was to be sure there were no hidden problems with workmanship and that warranties would be honored, but 10 percent is too much. It’s been 20 years since our contractors could expect 10 percent profits on a job.”

PREVAILING WAGE TO HAUL CONCRETE
• Senate Bill 1783, suggested by the Teamsters, would apply prevailing wage laws to transportation of ready-mixed concrete and aggregate materials on public works jobs, including the trip to the job site and the trip back to the originating site.

It would include truck rental costs and equipment owned by owner-operators in calculating the prevailing wage rate.
The bill is now before the Senate committees. A companion bill, HB 3316, awaits action in the House.

EQUAL PAY UPDATE
House Bill 834, an amendment to the Equal Pay Act of 2003 that would prohibit employers from either screening job applicants based on their wage or salary history, requiring that prior wages meet maximum or minimum criteria, or requiring that applicants disclose their previous wages.

Stuart is one of numerous co-sponsors of the bill, which is designed to end discriminatory hiring practices that can lock workers into career-long wage inequality.

The bill passed the House March 13 on a bipartisan vote of 86-28, and now awaits Senate action.

Stuart is circulating a petition in support of the bill. To join her, call 618-365-6650 or email repkatiestuart@gmail.com.

RESPONSIBLE CONTRACTORS
• Stuart and LaToya Greenwood (D-East St. Louis) are among sponsors of HB 2838, legislation suggested by the Carpenters Union, which would amend the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act to hold contractors liable if workers go unpaid by sub-contractors beginning July 1, 2019. The bill has been approved by the House Labor and Commerce Committee.

TWO-PERSON RAIL CREWS
• The Senate Executive Committee on March 20 approved SB 24, a measure long sought by the railroad unions that would require rail carriers passing through Illinois to have at least two crewmembers. The bill is supported by the Brother of Locomotive Engineers (BELT) and the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART).

Senate co-sponsors include Manar, Rachelle Crowe (D-Glen Carbon) and Christopher Belt (D-Cahokia).

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