Lawmakers vote to extend safety net for employers and workers: the Shared-Work Program

A program that helped more than 30,000 workers keep their jobs last year has been extended, thanks to action by Missouri lawmakers.  The Missouri Senate gave unanimous approval today to Senate Bill 844, legislation that extends the federal Shared-Work Program.  The Missouri House approved the bill yesterday on a vote of 143-4. The legislation is sponsored by Sen. Bob Dixon, a Republican from Springfield.  SB 844 now heads to Gov. Jay Nixon’s desk for signature.

factory workerNearly 350 Missouri employers were able to avoid layoffs last year using the Shared-Work Program.  Instead of cutting staff, employers can reduce workers’ hours through the program, with wages lost to workers supplemented by partial unemployment benefits.

“This safety net allows companies to weather tough economic times without losing their skilled workforce.  At the same time, the program helps Missouri workers make ends meet,” said Dan Mehan, Missouri Chamber President and CEO. “In addition to supplementing lost wages, employees can also retain employer-provided benefits, such as health care.”

The program is a win-win for employers, workers and the state.  It is a proven method for keeping jobs in Missouri.

“Employer members have told us that the Shared-Work Program has helped many of them stay in business during tough times.  Companies and jobs saved are important to the state’s bottom line,” Mehan said.

When Missouri Chamber members were alerted that the Shared-Work Program was in jeopardy if this legislation was not passed, many reached out to their legislators and urged action. Their action played a key role in pushing the extension over the finish line.

Similar legislation, House Bill 1713, was sponsored by Rep. Jeanne Lauer.  Rep. Lauer provided leadership and support on her bill and SB 844.

 

Missouri House votes to give employees a choice to join a union, but additional votes needed for final approval

Legislation to give employees the right to choose whether or not they want to be part of a labor union was given first-round approval on April 9 by the Missouri House of Representatives after heated debate.  The bill, HB 1770, sponsored by Rep. Eric Burlison, specifies that no person can be required to pay dues or fees to a union as a condition of work.  The bill was perfected on a vote of 78-68.

Some called the vote historic.  It was the first time in history that the Missouri House took a vote on right-to-work legislation.  However, in order to move to the Missouri Senate, the bill must receive 82 votes in support, which means four representatives must change their votes in the final vote on HB 1770.  Twelve representatives were absent for the April 9 perfection vote.  (See how they voted.)

Until House leadership is confident 82 yes votes can be secured, the bill likely will not be brought back up.  That is unfortunate for Missouri, which could soon be among the minority of states without right-to-work protections for its workers.

“It’s an issue of economics,” said Daniel P. Mehan, Missouri Chamber president and CEO.  “A state’s labor policy is one of the top factors site selectors look to when deciding where to move or expand businesses.  The more favorable a state looks to site selectors, the more jobs that state will have to offer its workers.  It’s also an issue of fairness.  Shouldn’t an employee have the right to decide whether a portion of his or her paycheck goes to a union?”

In Missouri, labor groups can negotiate on behalf of all workers — even those who are not in unions. Employees who are not union members don’t have to pay dues, but they must pay fees to cover the cost of representation — essentially tying them to the groups, even if they want no affiliation.

Twenty-four states currently have right-to-work laws.  In 2013, right-to-work legislation was introduced in 21 states, as well as in the District of Columbia and the U.S. Congress.  Of the states surrounding Missouri, all but Illinois and Kentucky are right-to-work states.

Statistics show that states that have implemented right to work laws are seeing an increase in jobs and worker wages.  According to Indiana Economic Development Corporation (IEDC), two years after Indiana passed right to work 64 companies relocated in the Hoosier State.  These companies created 8,000 jobs and $2.5 billion in capital investment.  What’s more, these new jobs paid on average $3.00 more per hour than previous wages.  While the IEDC says the right-to-work law wasn’t the only reason the companies came to Indiana, company executives said they wouldn’t have considered the state without it.

A similar success story hits even closer to home in neighboring state Oklahoma.  The first six months after Oklahoma passed right to work, the state went from 40th in the nation to 1st in job creation, according to the State Chamber of Oklahoma.

“Missouri can’t afford to ignore what is happening in states around us,” Mehan said.  “The most beneficial things we can provide Missouri workers are more job opportunities and that is what this bill would do.  It doesn’t mean we wouldn’t still have unions in Missouri, but the unions will have to work a little harder to earn their fees.”

Unfortunately, 2014 may not be the year this legislation will pass in Missouri.

“This vote makes it clear that we cannot underestimate this issue,” Mehan said.  “The states that have recently passed right-to-work legislation – Michigan, Indiana, Oklahoma – were successful because it was approached strategically and as part of a long-term plan.”

For more information on right to work legislation, contact Jay Atkins, Missouri Chamber general counsel and director of governmental affairs, at jatkins@mochamber.com, or by phone at 573-634-3511.

Virtual learning bills heard in House committee

A Missouri House committee is considering legislation to bolster the state’s programs for virtual learning.

The effort comes as Missouri has fallen behind in the effort to bring digital learning opportunities to K-12 students, according to a Missouri Chamber Education Foundation study released earlier this year.

The study found that unlike many other states, Missouri students do not have a publicly funded online school option.  Missouri law also does not allow open enrollment in virtual schools.  At a time when students in rural schools and students in failing students could greatly benefit from a virtual learning option, the study urged Missouri to look closely at policy revisions.

Toward this goal, the Missouri House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee held a hearing on two bills aimed at modifying Missouri’s virtual school statutes.

Rep. Kathy Swan, a Republican from Cape Girardeau, sponsored House bill 1780. Her bill would allow Missouri high school students who want to begin postsecondary coursework to access virtual learning programs.

The committee also heard testimony on House Bill 1895 by Rep. Vicki Englund, a Democrat from St. Louis. Rep. England’s bill would increase the amount of state funding given to local school districts that offer virtual learning programs. Currently, the state reimburses virtual programs at a rate of 94 percent of what the state would pay for traditional coursework. Rep. Englund is seeking to raise that to 95 percent.

The committee has not voted on either bill.

The Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry supports efforts to enhance virtual learning options in our state. For the future of our economy, it is critical that Missouri students receive a world-class education and emerge prepared to compete in a global economy.

For more information about education legislation, contact Jay Atkins, atjatkins@mochamber.com, or by phone at 573-634-3511.

Protecting our energy supply: Missouri House votes to give state new authority

With the federal government moving toward greater regulation of greenhouse gas—regulation that threatens to shutter critical power generation sources—the Missouri House has taken action to protect our state’s interests.

In 2009, President Barack Obama pledged to combat the effects of global warming by reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent by 2020, and 80 percent by 2050. Toward this goal, he directed the EPA to promulgate rules regulating emissions for new and existing coal-fired power plants.

The rules for new power plant construction were released in January. They effectively prohibit the construction of new coal power plants until technology is developed to capture and store emissions underground. Such technology is years, or perhaps decades, from being ready for mainstream power generation — if ever.

Expectations are that the new regulations for existing power plants will be released in June. If these restrictions follow the path of the restrictions on new power plants, Missouri’s energy supply could be in danger.

Nearly 85 percent of Missouri’s electrical energy needs are supplied by coal. The new regulations might force many of Missouri’s existing coal plants into retirement, leaving the state with nothing to fill the energy void.

The result will be a dramatic increase in energy costs across the board. Missouri consumers can expect direct increases of at least 25 – 35 percent for energy usage, and even more from non-direct economic impacts. The price of goods and services will soar dramatically as consumers absorb the increased costs of production and distribution that result from a forced reduction in energy output.

To help protect against this, the Missouri House has passed House Bill 1631. This bill would allow Missouri to exert the full force of its authority under the Clean Air Act to make regulatory decisions locally that are in the best interest of our state. It charges the state’s Air Conservation Commission to develop emissions standards and compliance schedules—rather than wait for the federal Environmental Protection Agency to specify these for Missouri.

“At the end of the day, we think Missouri is in a better position to determine that rather than bureaucrats in Washington,” said bill sponsor Rep. Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff.

The House passed the bill by a wide margin.

The Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry supports this legislation and is closely watching how the EPA chooses to issue future regulations. We will keep our members informed.

For more information about environmental issues, contact Jay Atkins, at jatkins@mochamber.com, or by phone at 573-634-3511.

House passes bill to clarify worker classification

The Missouri House has passed legislation that would make easier for Missouri employers to determine when a person is an employee versus an independent contractor.

House Bill 1642 is sponsored by Rep. Kurt Bahr, a Republican from St. Charles. It would task the Missouri Department of Labor with creating a clear and concise rule for defining “independent contractor” and a procedure for changing an individual classification from an independent contractor to an employee.

This clarification is critical because worker classification disputes can be time consuming and expensive for employers to resolve.

Under the bill, employers would have 60 days to comply with the reclassification of an employee following an audit, without being fined or assessed back taxes.

The legislation also gives employers the opportunity to request an opinion letter from the DOL regarding worker classification, which would protect the employer from future fines if the department subsequently determines that the person is an employee.

For more information on labor issues, contact Tracy King, vice president of governmental affairs for the Missouri Chamber, at tking@mochamber.com, or by phone at 573-634-3511.

Missouri House takes on Whistleblower Protection Act

This week the Missouri House discussed Missouri’s Whistleblower policy and what the legislature can do to protect those who speak out on wrongdoing in the workplace. Heard in the House Workforce Development and Workplace Safety Committee, House Bill 1188 would protect employees who report illegal workplace conduct. Sponsored by Rep. Kevin Elmer, R-Nixa, the proposed legislation would also provide legal protection to employers.

The bill would codify the existing common law exceptions and make it an unlawful employment practice for an employer to discharge or retaliate against an individual who is a protected person under the whistleblower protection.  The bill would then become the exclusive remedy for any and all unlawful employment practices and puts a cap on the amount of damages a person can receive.  However, a court may award the plaintiff actual damages.

This Missouri Chamber is supportive of this legislation.  Jay Atkins, general counsel for the Missouri Chamber, testified on behalf of the bill.

“Those who oppose this legislation argue that potential plaintiffs will be unable to file litigation because the definition of protected person under the bill is more stringent than what currently exists in common law,” Atkins said. “However, employers and employees are best served by having this standard established in statute.”

The committee did not take any action on this bill.  For more information about employment law, please contact Jay Atkins, general counsel for the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry at jatkins@mochamber.com or by phone at 573-634-3511.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LQsDRgWFeYA

House passes legislation to protect health care access and keep doctors in our state; Senate considers even broader tort reforms

The capitol was full of white-coated Missouri doctors who came to encourage lawmakers to support legislation that would protect access to health care and keep doctors in our state.  Lawmakers showed their support, by taking action on a priority of the medical community: reinstating non-economic damage caps on medical malpractice claims.

On Wednesday, the Missouri House gave final approval to House Bill 1173, legislation that creates a statutory cause of action for medical malpractice and reinstitutes the 2005 caps on non-economic damages abrogated by the Missouri Supreme Court’s decision in Watts.   The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Eric Burlison, a Republican from Springfield, is supported by the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

“We support lawmakers’ decision to protect health care access and keep doctors in our state by reinstating these reasonable caps,” said Missouri Chamber President and CEO Dan Mehan.  “We are also encouraged to see an appetite for common-sense tort reform by House leadership.”

The 2005 caps were part of a bi-partisan effort to bring stability to Missouri’s out-of-control tort system. If reasonable caps are not reinstated Missouri will again face the exact health care crisis remedied by the 2005 reforms.

Rep. Burlison’s bill would limit non-economic damage caps in medical malpractice cases to $350,000.  Non-economic damages are classified as intangible harm, such as emotional distress.  The caps would not keep a plaintiff from being compensated fully for hard costs, such as medical bills and loss of future earnings.

“From an employer standpoint, higher liability costs on health care providers means higher insurance premiums to cover employees.  Since the majority of private health care is purchased by employers, it makes sense that we would support this measure,” Mehan said.

Rep. Stanley Cox, a long-time proponent of common-sense litigation controls, shared this sentiment as he discussed the bill during debate.

“They (doctors) make decisions based on economics and if you can go 80 miles west of Sedalia and practice in a more hospitable environment, you might make that decision,” Cox said.

The Missouri Senate also held debate on medical malpractice cap legislation sponsored by Sen. Dan Brown, a Republican from Rolla.  Senate Bill 589 not only would reinstate non-economic medical malpractice caps, it would provide non-economic damage caps for all tort actions.  Another Missouri Chamber priority within SB 589 would reform joint and several liability, so that a defendant would liable for the amount of damages in direct proportion to the defendant’s percentage of fault.  Sen. Scott Sifton, an opponent of the legislation, was credited with slowing down the debate of SB 589, and the legislation was laid over without a vote.  Sen. Sifton is a Democrat from Afton.

For more information on litigation legislation, contact Jay Atkins, Missouri Chamber general counsel and director of legislative affairs, at jatkins@mochamber.com or by phone at 573-634-3511.