Washington House, Senate consider contrasting labor bills

OLYMPIA — With the Washington Legislature starting a stretch of intense work to vote on scores of policy proposals before a March 11 deadline, a series of labor and workforce bills moving through the House and Senate highlight the ideological differences between the leaders of each chamber.

In the Democratic-controlled House, bills with strong enough backing to make passage seem likely include bills to raise the state’s minimum wage to $12 an hour, guarantee a minimum amount of sick leave and forbid retaliation over complaints of owed wages. Across the Rotunda in the Senate, a coalition of mostly Republicans holds power and has passed out of committee bills that would aid challenges to labor unions, restructure workers’ compensation and create a tier of legal wages for teenagers below the state’s official minimum hourly pay.

So far, leaders on each side have spoken as if they are unwilling to bend to the proposals being considered by the other, which creates the possibility the opposing ideologies in play could mostly cancel out.

“It’s quite a contrast, actually,” said Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, the longtime Speaker of the House.

He said House Democrats plan to caucus Monday on their set of bills and spoke critically about several of the Senate workforce proposals.

“They’re not supported by the public, and they actually do harm to workers, so it’s quite a contrast there,” Chopp said.

On a similar schedule with markedly different aims are the Senate Republicans. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, chair of the Senate’s Commerce and Labor committee, took a dim view of the House Democratic agenda, including the minimum-wage proposal.

“There won’t be a lot of support for anything that hurts working-class jobs in our caucus,” Baumgartner said.

He brought up February’s news that Seattle-based Cascade Designs is moving jobs to Nevada for reasons including the cost of labor after Seattle’s decision to increase the city’s minimum wage.

“That’s a real canary in the coal mine,” Baumgartner said. “Do we want to do that to the rest of the state?”

The plan for both chamber-controlling parties is to caucus over their array of labor-related bills early this week, then bring the bills to the floor that have enough support to pass. The big obstacle for each side is that however partisan a bill might be, it needs to survive the other party’s chamber.

“If they want to see anything come out of the other side, they’re going to have to work to compromise on common ground on some things,” said Bob Battles, general counsel and government affairs director for the Association of Washington Business.

His group and several workers’ interest groups are watching the imminent policy skirmishes intently.

Battles said his attention is particularly focused on how the minimum wage and sick and safe leave bills fare.

“You continue to put costs on top of small business owners, and eventually the small businesses can’t continue to survive,” Battles said. “We’re going to push our small business folks out of the market. They operate on such tight margins already.”

In a statement, Sejal Parikh of Working Washington called the Senate’s pending labor bills “dead-end proposals” and said he sees significant support for a $15-an-hour minimum wage statewide.

“No matter how well-funded the corporate lobbying budgets, and no matter what happens in the Legislature, workers in our state will continue to rise up for a better future,” Parikh said.

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