The Oregon Legislature has struck a blow against bad employers in the construction industry.
Earlier today, lawmakers passed HB 2977—a bill meant to make it harder for unscrupulous “labor brokers” to stiff day laborers of their hard-earned dollars.
Currently, labor brokers from established companies—of the Labor Ready variety—to informal brokers—those guys whose entire business model is based on the fact that they own a truck and can drive laborers to where they’re needed—operate in a, let’s just call it, less-than-stringent regulatory environment.
HB 2977 would require all labor brokers in Oregon to resister with the state. The idea is that requiring registration and slapping fines on those who don’t register will make it harder for labor brokers to operate under the radar. And, hence, they’ll be more likely to treat their workers with respect and actually pay them.
If that's not good enough, the bill also puts some pressure on contractors to avoid unregistered labor brokers by making them responsible for any unpaid back wages. And HB 2977 also requires labor brokers to post bonds with the state when they register, so, if they do screw their workers out of their wages, these workers can more easily get something back.
“The idea,” says bill-backer and labor lawyer Michael Dale, “is this will make it more difficult to get into this business if you don’t have the resources to be able to follow through with your responsibilities.... You’re going to find that after people become accustomed to this system, it’s going to be very difficult for you to get work as a labor broker because contractors won’t want you working for them if the net result is they will end up holding the bag [for back wages].”
HB 2977 is one of four anti-wage-theft bills introduced and pushed by Dale’s Northwest Workers’ Justice Project.
Roughly defined as anything from not getting paid overtime to not getting paid at all, wage theft is estimated to cost the state and nation’s low-income workers millions of dollars each year.
Last march, we did a quick breakdown of the bills Dale was pushing for. So far only HB 2977 has passed the legislature.
Another bill, very similar, but more comprehensive than HB 2977, is in committee, as is another bill that would require employers to place liens on their properties to ensure stiffed workers get paid.
Perhaps the most far-reaching of the proposed bills, HB 3142, is also still in committee. This bill would have changed the legal definitions of “employer” and “employee” to reflect actual on-the-ground working conditions. Currently, the legal definitions of “employer” and “employee” are iffy (to say the least) in industries were workers can be considered independent contractors. HB 3142 would have made it easier for workers stuck in this legal backwater to qualify as employees and sue for back wages. (There are current rules that allow independent contractors to claim employee status and use this as grounds to sue for back wages, but doing this isn’t easy, it has to be done on a case-by-case basis, and the burden of proving employee status is laid on the disgruntled worker).
With this legislative session winding down, Dale told the Mercury he doesn’t expect to see these others bills come out of committee. But, he adds, “I would suspect we will see some or all of them in a future session.”
HB 2977 now goes to Governor John Kitzhaber for approval. Dale says he’s pretty confident the governor will sign it. As to his group’s legislative successes, Dale says, “We are delighted.”