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Work-share bill prompts war of words (UPDATE)

By: Dan Shaw, [email protected]//March 6, 2013//

Work-share bill prompts war of words (UPDATE)

By: Dan Shaw, [email protected]//March 6, 2013//

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By Dan Shaw

By stripping language that would require employers consult unions before reducing employee work hours in lieu of layoffs, Assembly Republicans have not taken away union rights, the president of the AFL-CIO of Wisconsin said Wednesday.

Still, Phil Neuenfeldt said he wants that language back in Assembly Bill 15 for a simple reason.

“Clarity,” he said.

At the same time, Neuenfeldt said, he supports the bulk of the bill, which would let an employer enter a so-called work-share program to ensure its employees can receive unemployment benefits after their work hours have been reduced to avoid layoffs. The Wisconsin State Assembly passed the bill, 74-22, with most of the affirmatives coming from Republicans.

Neuenfeldt said relations between employers and union workers are governed by the Federal Labor Relations Act, which already requires that before reducing hours, companies negotiate with the representatives of employees who work under collecting bargaining contracts. Still, he said, he can envision a situation in which an employer might be unaware of that requirement and would try to use a work-share agreement as a reason to reduce hours without negotiating.

“I think if you don’t spell it out” he said, “there’s a possibility that employers won’t understand what their rights are and that they could submit something for approval and actually get turned down.”

Speaking at the Assembly hearing Wednesday, state Rep. Edward Brooks, R-Reedsburg, said the union language was removed from the bill he wrote because it was redundant.

State Sen. Paul Farrow, R-Pewaukee, the author of a companion bill in the Senate, said after the assembly hearing that he also thinks the union language is unnecessary.

“We don’t believe,” he said, “that our businesses won’t keep in mind over 70 years of labor relations law.”

Farrow said he does not know whether the Senate will take up the Assembly’s or Senate’s version of the bill and said no schedule had been set to hear either.

Work-share programs have been around for a long time but began to receive more federal support in 2012, when President Barack Obama signed the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act.

Twenty-five states now allow work-share programs. Yet if Wisconsin passes Assembly Bill 15, the state would join only Minnesota in not requiring negotiation with unions before the adoption of work-share programs.

Before the final vote on the bill, the Assembly tabled an amendment that would have added a provision to the bill that would require employers consult unions before reducing workers’ hours under a work-share program. Senate Democrats introduced a bill last month that almost is identical to the Assembly legislation but includes the language about unions.

Janis Ringhand, D-Evansville, said she finds it difficult to understand why there was not more support for the Democrats’ version of the bill.

“We were all told this was going to be a bipartisan Legislature this year,” she said. “And we want to work together across the aisles and work for our constituents. It’s really been disappointing when these things happen.”

Work-share programs are meant to help companies get through economically difficult times without greatly shrinking their workforces. They also ensure workers whose hours are reduced can receive partial unemployment payments that help to mitigate their economic losses.

The bill the Assembly passed Wednesday would let employers seek the permission of the Department of Workforce Development to establish a work-share plan for a specific group of employees, or a work unit. To be approved, the plans must include at least 20 workers in the unit.

“Under the program, the working hours of all of the full-time employees in the program are reduced in an equitable manner in lieu of a total layoff of some of the employees and a continuation of full-time employment by the other employees,” according to a bill analysis by the Legislative Reference Bureau.

The bill stipulates that only employees who have worked for a particular employer for an average of at least 32 hours a week over the course of three months can take part in a work-share program. It excludes part-time, seasonal and temporary employees.

The bill also limits work-share programs to no more than six months during a five-year period.

And if the bill confirmed what federal law already requires, Neuenfeldt said, a lot of unions and employees would rest easier.

“When you are in a layoff situation, it is a very tense situation,” he said. “There are a lot of things that are going on, and making clear what steps are necessary is helpful.”


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