The balance of power between businesses and their workers shifted in Kansas and Missouri this year — in favor of the boss.
The business lobby won passage of bills that curtail wages required on public jobs and make it harder for workers to collect unemployment if they get fired for a range of offenses as minor as tardiness or not wearing a name badge.
Supporters say the changes foster a friendlier climate for creating jobs and could jolt the economy to life. Critics say the changes hurt the little guy.
“This is a disastrous session for Charlie Lunchbucket,” said Kansas Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat.
Kansas Sen. Julia Lynn, an Olathe Republican, countered that the new labor laws “are reflective of an unrelenting desire to get our economy working again.”
Among the bills signed into law in Kansas this year:
• Employees fired for being late for work without good cause will be barred from unemployment benefits if they are warned first and if the employee is notified of the employer’s attendance requirements. The new law no longer requires the warning to be in writing.
• Laid-off workers can no longer collect a severance payment and unemployment simultaneously. An employee receiving a six-month severance, for instance, has to wait six months to draw unemployment.
• The length of unemployment benefits could be shortened. Currently, the unemployed in Kansas can draw benefits for 26 weeks. Starting in 2014, a person will qualify for a maximum of 26 weeks of unemployment if the jobless rate is 6 percent or greater. Eligibility will drop to 20 weeks and then to 16 weeks as unemployment falls.
• Guidelines have been changed for assessing workplace injuries, a move that labor supporters say will lead to reduced benefits for injured workers.
Those new laws and others that ban Wyandotte County from requiring union-scale wages on public jobs and require drug tests for unemployment benefits, critics say, add up to a bad year for labor.
“It’s been absolutely terrible for workers,” said Bruce Tunnell, executive vice president of the Kansas AFL-CIO. “They’ve fared very badly.”
Others just don’t see it that way.
They say the new laws — like the income tax cuts pushed by the governor — offer Kansas a way to help businesses create jobs.
Lynn, who is chairwoman of the Senate Commerce Committee, said the new policies aim to drive people off public assistance rolls into new jobs instead of exploiting a system intended to serve as a safety net.
“There are some people that don’t want to work,” Lynn said. “We’re not going to design a system to promote that.”
If laid-off workers forgo some jobs, labor activists say, it’s because they can’t afford to live on wages paying less than unemployment.
“There’s no job that people don’t want,” said Topeka labor organizer Chad Manspeaker. “The problem is the wages aren’t such that people actually want to do that job.”
A similar controversy over unemployment erupted this year in Missouri when lawmakers passed legislation making it harder for employees fired for misconduct to qualify for unemployment.
The bill sent to Gov. Jay Nixon expands the definition of misconduct to include any violation of an employer’s rules — such as arriving on time or wearing a name tag — unless workers show they didn’t know about the requirement.
Missouri currently denies unemployment benefits to workers who only intentionally or deliberately violate an employer’s rules. That standard, critics say, means some workers get benefits they don’t deserve because showing they broke company rules on purpose can be difficult.
Democrats say the changes dismantle an essential piece of the social safety net.
“The purpose of unemployment insurance is to make sure people can stay in their homes and continue to buy groceries after they lose their job,” said Rep. Stephen Webber, a Columbia Democrat. “This bill says that if you don’t wear your name tag and you’re terminated for it, you can be denied unemployment insurance.”
Supporters of some of this year’s initiatives say they are aimed at protecting the solvency of the states’ unemployment trust funds, which pay unemployment claims.
Businesses pay fees into the trust funds in both states. But when the recession hit and benefit payments spiked, the trust funds were depleted. That forced the states to borrow millions from the federal government to pay unemployment claims.
Letting employees collect severance and unemployment benefits at the same time is tantamount to double-dipping, business supporters say.
“If someone doesn’t need those resources because they receive a severance package, then we don’t want them to draw down on the fund,” said Dan Murray, the Kansas director of the National Federation of Independent Business.
One Kansas labor law change will directly affect wages paid to workers on public construction projects in Wyandotte County.
A bill already signed into law prohibits cities and counties from requiring contractors to pay more than federal minimum wage on public contracts, otherwise known as prevailing wage.
The bill targeted Wyandotte County, which requires union-scale wages on public projects and projects bankrolled with economic development incentives such as the General Motors expansion and the Village West entertainment complex.
Wyandotte County argued against the bill, saying prevailing wage has fostered economic success.
County officials point out that investment in Wyandotte County has increased to $241 million in 2012 from $61 million in 2008.
“One of the arguments against prevailing wage is that it’s bad for business. Clearly it’s not,” said Unified Government Mayor Mark Holland. “We’ve been very successful with it.”
Wyandotte County has a high concentration of union workers, and the prevailing wage law gave money to workers who in turn spent that money locally, he said.
Lynn, the Senate commerce committee chairwoman, said prevailing wage inflated construction costs by requiring contractors to pay higher wages.
The lobbyist for the Unified Government said the prevailing wage bill was fueled by Crossland Construction, which helped bankroll the Kansas Chamber of Commerce’s efforts to get conservative Republicans elected to the statehouse last year.
The chairman of the chamber’s board is Ivan Crossland Jr., the company’s chief executive. Crossland employs the Senate president’s son-in-law as a statehouse lobbyist.
Crossland said in a statement that the company “has long supported public policy based on individual liberty and free market principles, which encourage competition and economic development.”