Worker protection bill fights ‘underground economy’

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HOFFMAN

By CARL GREEN

Illinois Correspondent

Springfield, IL – Illinois legislators have approved creating a unit in the attorney general’s office and a related task force to protect workers caught up in the “underground economy” of low wages and unsafe and unfair conditions.

But as of last week, Governor Bruce Rauner had not taken action on the Workers Protection Unit and Work Protection Task Force bill. Legislators said they would try to override any veto of the bill.

“Working men and women are the backbone of our communities, and they deserve more protections,” said the bill sponsor, Representative Jay Hoffman (D-Swansea), the House assistant majority leader.

The bill passed the House Feb. 28 on a 69-47 vote largely along party lines, with Republicans voting against it, leaving it susceptible to a governor’s veto. The Senate passed it March 1 with a stronger 35-16 total.

Goals of the unit would be to assure safe working environments, to see that employees are properly paid and to promote healthy and fair competition among businesses.

RAUNER’S FAILURE

Hoffman said the plan is a response to the refusal of Rauner’s Department of Labor to take action on workers’ rights.

“Much of the unit’s work should be done by the Department of Labor, but the Rauner administration hasn’t been interested in enforcing workers’ rights, so this would give the attorney general the discretion and authority to take action to protect our workers,” Hoffman told the Labor Tribune.

The sponsors are preparing to challenge a veto from the governor, which would not come as a surprise.

“If Governor Rauner follows past practices, he may veto the bill because his entire tenure as governor has been an attack on workers and working families,” Hoffman said. “We would move forward to override a veto with the help of reasonable Republicans in the Legislature, because working men and women deserve better.”

WORKERS PROTECTION UNIT

The Workers Protection Unit would be made up of attorney general’s office staff members, including assistant attorney generals, “dedicated to combating the state’s underground economy, which forces its employees to work in unsafe conditions and gives businesses that avoid their tax and labor responsibilities an unfair economic advantage,” the bill states.

Taxpayers in general would stand to benefit as well. “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 that gain an unfair advantage by evading their responsibilities.”

The unit could intervene, initiate, enforce and defend in criminal and civil legal proceedings on issues and violations involving prevailing wage, minimum wage, employee classification, temporary labor and wage payment.

It could also issue subpoenas, hold hearings, take statements under oath or in writing, interview witnesses under oath, obtain injunctions and collect monetary damages or restitution.

The task force would be a different operation made up of the attorney general and designated assistants plus state’s attorneys from counties across the state or their representatives. Its job would be to “promote a statewide outreach and enforcement effort to target Illinois’ underground economy,” the bill states.

The task force would create a coalition of state’s attorneys, share information among members and seek to improve methods and strategies for investigating worker exploitation cases. It would report to the governor and General Assembly by Dec. 1.

One of the other sponsors is state Senator Kwame Raoul, the Democratic candidate for attorney general now that the incumbent, Lisa Madigan, is not running for re-election.

Noted Hoffman: “Senator Kwame Raoul and members of Organized Labor and I are attempting to fill a void that has been lacking in the Rauner administration, and this measure is the impetus to resolve that void.

“Thanks to the support of my colleagues in the legislature, this bill is now sitting on the governor’s desk,” he added. “It is my sincere hope that the governor will sign the legislation into law to protect and uplift workers in our state.”

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