Workers who have felt left behind by their political leaders throughout the pandemic will not be surprised by Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek’s recent decision. Shortly after assuring a broad coalition of labor organizations that she would have their backs in passing a long-awaited Essential Worker Pay package, Kotek abruptly announced her departure from public service in order to focus on her political advancement.
It may sound like a fairytale to Oregonians, but state legislatures have the power to help working families. Since the COVID pandemic began in early 2020, the Washington Legislature has passed several advances for workers: adopting farmworker overtime, improving workplace safety standards, and actually increasing capital gains taxes in order to supply working families with tax cuts and better services.
Meanwhile, the Oregon Legislature has been working hard to provide assistance to those already at the top of the economic ladder. The legislature scrambled to ensure that landlords were getting paid, employers were protected from various lawsuits, and half a billion dollars worth of business tax breaks were passed for corporations. Idaho similarly prioritized tax breaks for large property owners and boldly redefined the meaning of “the least we could do” by simply clarifying how the resulting funeral expenses would be defined under workers compensation laws.
A small coalition of Oregon legislators are working in good faith to honor the workers who have kept the state operating through the pandemic; Oregon Representatives Prusak and Valderrama have been working tirelessly to revitalize the Essential Worker Pay concept. Yet, the remaining Democratic-controlled institutions of government seem to believe that frontline workers are only a priority on election day.
At the start of the pandemic, a coalition of labor groups representing frontline workers asserted the need for workers compensation laws to better protect those who faced exposure at work. Washington Governor Jay Inslee moved to protect many frontline workers in Washington with various protections and benefits through executive order as early as March 2020. Similar pro-worker decisions were even adopted by some of the most corporate- friendly states like Kentucky, Texas, and Florida. But Oregon officials deferred the decision time and again. Oregon Governor Kate Brown complained that her hands were tied, and the legislature deferred to the wait-and-see approach suggested by the employer representatives of the Management-Labor Advisory Committee.
In the meantime, workers died of COVID exposure.
As COVID vaccines were becoming more available, the CDC recommended that many frontline workers (including grocery workers) be placed in the very second group. This decision was based on their proximity to the public, importance of their jobs, and the fact that many of these professions were disproportionately held by historically underserved populations. Without explanation, Governor Brown placed grocery workers at the back of the line, contrary to CDC recommendations. She later moved those workers slightly forward only after intense lobbying.
In the meantime, workers died of COVID exposure.
This year, we’re asking for Essential Worker Pay in order to compensate those workers who have been most affected by — and most underpaid to deal with — direct COVID exposure risks. A broad coalition of labor organizations has been working on queueing this measure up for the 2022 session in Oregon. We have a high degree of confidence that the measure is likely to pass thanks to the efforts of the coalition and a handful of supportive legislators. The political establishment has made one thing abundantly clear to workers in the last two years: we cannot count on the legislature to save us. We cannot stand idle while workers die. Although we have dedicated friends and allies in public service, we cannot count on the gears of government to deliver us from danger or abuse or poverty.
This past year saw the realization of that sentiment. Workers began to become valued for the work that they were performing and began to leverage that value collectively. We saw successful strikes in the Pacific Northwest and across the country; we saw employers who were forced to recognize that their prosperity depends on their workers and had to negotiate accordingly — sometimes collectively and sometimes individually.
So our agendas for 2022 and beyond are not going to be timid appeals to the Legislative Assembly. We are asking for support on Essential Worker Pay, but we are also bargaining aggressively for higher wages. We are asking for reform of the workers compensation system, but we are preparing litigation that will address those concerns regardless. We are asking for a Just Enforcement Act to facilitate enforcement of labor and employment laws, but we are partnering with nonprofit organizations who can leverage our existing capabilities.
Elected officials should put working families first, not multi-national corporations. We hope to have labor-friendly Governors and labor-friendly majorities in legislative chambers next year, and we will be working hard to ensure that.