Salem Update: COVID-19 and Front Line Workers

At the end of the abortive 2020 Legislative Session, it seemed as if we might have been headed toward a Special Session so that the Legislature could tackle the business that had been left unfinished by the Republican walkout. Now, with the new priorities we’re facing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are possibly looking at two or three (very short) special sessions over the coming months, exclusively addressing COVID-related items. Because so many legislators would be packed into the State Capitol in close proximity, the Legislature’s goal is to work out as much consensus as possible prior to session, through hearings and meetings conducted online (and available for the public), and keep each session as short as possible.
At the time of writing this piece, your coalition of public and private sector labor organizations is pursuing policy along two tracks: First, that which the Governor or executive agencies may accomplish unilaterally, such as adjusting administrative processes or definitions to better suit workers’ needs at the moment. Second, that which requires Legislative intervention: both in the short term to address the current crisis and (possibly) permanent fixes to address problems that have been made more visible in the last month.
Concurrently, we are keeping in mind that large industry groups are using the crisis as an excuse to roll back protective regulations and workers’ rights. Even as they tout their public-facing workforces as “heroes,” their work in Salem (or at least teleconferencing into Salem) seeks to roll back decades of pro-labor effort. Our collective government relations teams are working constantly and in concert with one another on a wide array of issues, but here are three areas of note:
Predictive Scheduling In 2017, Oregon became the first state to pass predictive scheduling laws, mandating that large employers needed to provide work schedules one week in advance (set to extend to two weeks on July 1) with certain limited exceptions. Just as predictably, industry groups that had bristled against fair scheduling processes in 2017 jumped at the chance in March to urge a rollback — or even suspension — of predictive scheduling enforcement. While we acknowledged that businesses were dealing with difficult circumstances, the measure itself (SB 828 from 2017) was written specifically with provisions to allow for this kind of situation. The labor community stood firm with Labor Commissioner Val Hoyle in pushing back against changes, and it looks as if this issue is thankfully off the table for future special sessions.
Workers’ Compensation Currently, workers’ compensation already covers injuries or sickness that are employment-related. For example: if a grocery worker twists their ankle at work, it’s clearly a work-related injury and covered. Similarly, if they contract COVID-19 at work, it should be covered under current law. It’s more difficult to show where someone contracted a virus, though, even if it was almost certainly contracted at work. So employers (both public and private sector) have a habit of challenging claims that they feel could be difficult to prove in order to keep their insurance rates low. And some employers like Fred Meyer are self-insured — meaning that since any coverage would come directly out of a store’s profits, the management has a direct financial interest in denying such claims. What we’re pushing for is a “presumption,” meaning that if certain front-line workers contract COVID-19, the workers’ compensation system presumes that it’s employment-related unless the employer can prove otherwise. (As an example of an existing similar policy, firefighters in Oregon who develop lung cancer are presumed to have contracted that disease on the job unless the employer can prove otherwise.) We’re not asking for additional coverage — we’re simply asking that workers are able to access the coverage that they’re already entitled to. This will ensure that workers can get the medical attention they need without it impacting their wages or the medical expenses hitting their personal pocketbook. The Governor’s office is amenable to the push, but her in-office counsel indicated that this would have to be accomplished through legislation, which we expect to be brought forward in the special session.
Self-Serve Gas
For years, Oregon and New Jersey have been the only two states with no self-serve gasoline. And while that is sometimes the butt of jokes from other states, consider this: During the 2018 flu season, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that Oregon and New Jersey had a statistically lower contagion rate than surrounding states, with a statistically- significant 3 less deaths per 100,000 residents. Nevertheless, last month the oil and gas industry requested that the Governor relax self-service restrictions to allow them to understaff their gasoline pumps. Aside from the additional contagion, lack of access for seniors and disabled people, and the unregulated pumping of a Class-1 flammable liquid, this has put thousands of jobs in jeopardy in a time when Oregon is already facing a severe unemployment crisis. To add insult to injury, some stations attached to retail operations have simply reassigned those workers into the store’s retail areas — showing that the workers were available but the store simply wanted to vacate some positions (despite their claims that workers were refusing to show up!). Despite our warning to the Governor’s office that this would likely occur, we’re disappointed to note that Governor Brown has stood with the oil and gas industry in allowing the deregulation. If the data from the CDC is to be believed, this will lead to higher rates of COVID-19 contagion as more and more people handle gas pumps. We will be working at undoing this mistake through legislative action, and already have bipartisan support to do so.
On these items and others, we remember that things are changing quickly and our success will only be earned through constant vigilance. This summary represents the state of things as I am writing this, but by the time of printing some things will likely have shifted — whether that is for the better or the worse is a function of our influence and strength in the State Capitol. As we fight special interests and negotiate with lawmakers each of these issues, we are in a much stronger position because of the work and participation of our members. When you write an e-mail, call an elected official’s office, or tag your lawmaker in a social media post, you’re helping make our case stronger. The labor movement is about solidarity and togetherness in the face of otherwise overbearing obstacles. Together, we will get through this.
In unity,
Jeff Anderson