The Senate passed legislation Tuesday that would allow employers to cut worker hours rather than lay some employees off.
The bill passed on party lines, with all 18 Republicans voting for it and all 15 Democrats voting against it, despite a number of them saying the bill is a “good idea.” It would give unemployment benefits to employees who get their hours cut, as long as the Department of Workforce Development approves the employer’s program.
The bill will now head to Gov. Scott Walker’s desk for his final signature.
Although they supported the rest of the bill, Democrats took issue with Republicans not including language they said would protect private-sector union collective bargaining. Republicans said the language was not necessary, claiming the protections already exist in state and federal law.
Sen. Julie Lassa, D-Stevens Point, who introduced a similar bill last session, said the amendment was necessary to give businesses certainty. Without the amendment, she said, the proposed work-share programs could face legal challenges.
“By approving this amendment, it makes sure that there is certainty for businesses who have union employees by making sure they’re able to work together in implementing a work-share plan,” Lassa said. “If this is not done … then that can go to the [National Labor Relations Board] and get appealed.”
A number of Democrats said the bill, without the amendment, would move Wisconsin closer to becoming a right-to-work state.
The state’s Unemployment Insurance Advisory Council, which is made up of equal amounts of labor and business representatives, supports the amendment.
But the bill’s author, Sen. Paul Farrow, R-Pewaukee, said the council also acknowledges federal and state law would still cover the programs. Adding the Democratic amendment to the bill, Farrow said, would be “redundant.”
“In this situation, that’s already covered by these laws - by the contracts that are in place,” Farrow said. “I fail to see how we’re trying to single-handedly change the collective bargaining laws by one small program that could affect companies across this state and give them another tool that allows them to hang on to their skilled labor.”
Democrats noted the council’s support for the bill, and they said they were concerned with breaking away from the decades-long tradition of approving its recommendations.
Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, who has been in the Legislature since the 1950s, said that was a major change.
“Through the years when Republicans were in charge, through the years when Democrats were in charge, this body, in a bipartisan way, paid attention to the advisory committee,” Risser said. “It was a good idea. Now what’s happened is that this good idea is being disregarded by the current Republican majority.”
Farrow said he “understands” there is precedent for passing the council’s recommendations, but he said Democrats’ claims that the bill would harm unions were unfounded.
In a statement, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, praised the Senate for passing legislation that would “protect jobs and help businesses.”
“This bill can help people keep their jobs and help businesses retain skilled workers,” Fitzgerald said. “By giving the private sector this flexibility, we’re providing an added safety net for Wisconsin workers when times get tough.”