As Connecticut businesses and their allies battle numerous labor-backed measures in the General Assembly, they’re finding themselves outflanked.
The legislature’s labor and public employees committee has sent several bills strongly opposed by business groups to the General Assembly to consider: a $15 minimum wage, limits on what employers can do during union organizing drives, paid family and medical leave for employees and new rules governing protections against workplace sexual harassment.
“I don’t know how businesses hold on if all these things pass,” said Eric Gjede, a lobbyist for the Connecticut Business & Industry Association, the state’s largest business advocacy group. “We should look at what we’re doing to businesses in this state.”
The CBIA had its annual Business Day at the Capitol last week, bringing hundreds of business owners and others to the Capitol to lobby lawmakers.
“I spent most of my life building telecommunications systems,” Gov. Ned Lamont told the CBIA audience. “I was always a little skeptical of the folks in government and their ability to manage and they weren’t like us in the private sector.”
But Lamont defended the higher minimum wage and family and medical leave proposals. He told business owners and representatives he understands their concerns about the paid family leave measure that would allow workers to take 12 paid weeks off. Businesses say they can not easily replace employees who have specialized skills or find job applicants willing to work just three months.
“Look, I understand the person is gone for a period of time. You’ve got to train them. There’s a cost to that,” the governor said. “I’ve been there. But I think it really is important that sends a message that Connecticut is a place that understands the single parents, the two working parents, the changing landscape.”
The uphill struggles businesses face began on Election Day when Democrats, the traditional ally of organized labor, broadened their House majority and erased an 18-to-18 tie in the state Senate by capturing a majority of seats that now numbers 22.
A smaller Democratic majority in the House and evenly divided Senate the previous two years helped spur economic progress, Gjede said.
“We made a lot of strides in two years when both sides were required to work together,” he said. “The economy improved as a result of it. We really run the risk this year and next year of undermining this.”
Andy Markowski, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, an advocacy group for small business, said company owners, executives and other advocates are not giving up. But they’re also not optimistic they’ll ultimately prevail, he said.
“I don’t think business owners are resigned that these things are going to pass, but they’re realistic about the political dynamics at the Capitol right now,” Markowski said.
Employment numbers released Thursday by the state Department of Labor were a harsh reminder of Connecticut’s troubled economy. In February, employers cut 400 jobs and economists revised downward a January gain of 1,000 jobs to a loss of 2,500.
That followed by less than two weeks an announcement that the U.S. Department of Labor sharply scaled back Connecticut’s 2018 job growth. Economists revised downward the number to an increase of 10,000 jobs from initial reports of nearly 20,000.
In addition, the state persistently lags the U.S. and other states in reclaiming lost jobs.
“Lawmakers should be alarmed by the fact that the national economy is growing and Connecticut has only gained back 80 percent of the jobs lost in the last recession and they need to act accordingly,” said Joe Brennan, president of the CBIA.
Legislation advanced by the labor committee and another bill by Gov. Ned Lamont would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour from the current $10.10 over several years. Businesses are angry at what they say is a rapid and steep increase in labor costs that previously had risen by 25 cents an hour or a little more at a time.
Brian Jessurun of Pomfret, a co-owner of four restaurants in northeast Connecticut, including the Vanilla Bean Cafe in Pomfret, said a $15 minimum wage and other labor-backed proposals would “blow up business models” for family-run and other small firms for which wages are among the biggest costs. Only big businesses will survive, he said.
“This is a looming disaster,” Jessurun said. “How is this being proposed in a state that by any measure is bankrupt?”
Rep. Joe Polletta, R-Watertown and the top House Republican on the labor committee, said negotiations over the minimum wage bill might lead to changes stretching out the time period until it reaches $15. He called it a “drastic jump” and warned against another provision of the committee’s version that would raise the wage in step with inflation. If it becomes law, the minimum wage would rise without a vote by the legislature, Polletta said.
Unions and their allies say the wage increase is a needed boost for low-paid workers and will pump money into the economy.
A measure that Democrats call their No. 1 priority would reimburse employees up to $1,000 a week for 12 weeks after the birth of a child or for medical care for a family member. It would be financed by a half-percent payroll tax. Supporters say it’s an important benefit for workers and would not be a financial burden to businesses because it would be paid for by employees.
Owners of small businesses say such a law would hinder their operations by requiring them to replace workers for up to three months, a difficult task if an employee has specialized skills. In addition, critics say most job applicants are not interested in temporary gigs.
A third measure would prohibit an employer from forcing employees to attend or participate in meetings sponsored by the employer concerning the employer’s views on political or religious matters. Supporters say it would shield workers seeking to organize a union from management pressure.
The CBIA has said federal labor law prevails and opposes the bill.
And legislation would bar as a defense to an allegation of sexual harassment that the complaint was properly investigated, immediate corrective action was taken and no act of sexual harassment subsequently occurred. Gjede said the measure would expose employers to lawsuits even when they take necessary steps to prevent and investigate sexual harassment and act accordingly. Current law is “good, sound policy” that should remain in place, he said.
Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury and co-chairwoman of the labor committee, said she and businesses have sought “common ground” on several issues. In exchange for a higher minimum wage, for example, businesses can participate in the state employee health insurance plan, she said.
“You can find some relief in other areas,” she said. “That’s a very good example where we’ve seen some ability to work together.”
Kushner, a freshman lawmaker who was part of the wave of Democrats who eliminated the close party division in the Senate, says the CBIA and other groups do not have a monopoly on interpreting business views of legislation.
“I’ve found most small businesses are looking for ways to help employees,” she said, citing a higher minimum wage and paid family leave.
Kushner, a former organizer for the United Auto Workers and activist in the Connecticut Working Families Party, has met with the local chamber of commerce and will do so again. Her experience in the labor movement has led her to work with the business community as partners, she said.
“This isn’t unfamiliar territory to me,” Kushner said.
P.J. Prunty, president of the Danbury Chamber of Commerce, said he and others have spoken to Kushner about their concerns with legislation she supports.
“We understand the challenges Connecticut faces, but we can’t put that burden on the back of small businesses,” he said.
Original article can be found in the March 22, 2019 edition of the Hartford Courant