While Wisconsin is locked in a labor union showdown, Kansas is grappling with its own legislation affecting workers and businesses — with mixed results.
The House passed a bill last week to update and modify workers’ compensation laws. It would limit eligibility requirements for some workers’ compensation awards and increase maximum benefits to injured workers.
What is noteworthy about House Bill 2134 is that it had the support of both businesses and labor unions. The bill was the result of negotiations between the two groups that started last summer, and attorneys representing the groups urged lawmakers not to undermine the compromise.
Unfortunately, some House lawmakers couldn’t resist amending the bill. The Senate should change the bill to stick to the original compromise.
Another important bill, Senate Bill 77, would raise employer contributions to the Kansas unemployment insurance trust fund. High and extended levels of unemployment have depleted the fund. In fact, the state had to borrow $100 million from the federal government to help pay benefits.
Business groups support the change, realizing the state has to replenish this fund. And though the increased taxes will total about $269 million over the next three years, businesses have benefited in recent years from reduced or suspended unemployment taxes. For example, employers saved about $286 million in reduced unemployment taxes from 2007 to 2009.
The bill also seeks to save about $11 million annually by reinstating a one-week waiting period for people to receive jobless payouts. And it eliminates benefits paid to people who voluntarily quit a job to follow a spouse accepting new employment, though that doesn’t apply when the spouse is serving in the armed forces.
Democratic lawmakers and labor unions object to these benefit changes, arguing that the state is kicking people when they are down. But replenishing the trust fund likely requires both higher taxes and some benefit adjustments. And the bill doesn’t reduce weekly unemployment benefits, which is good.
GOP House lawmakers also are in the process of passing a third bill, House Bill 2130, that would prohibit labor unions from using dues money for political activities. Unions strenuously object to this bill and see it as politically motivated. But union members shouldn’t have to support political activities with which they don’t agree.
Though some conflicts are inevitable, lawmakers, unions and businesses should try to work together to find practical middle-ground solutions, as was done with the workers’ compensation bill. As Kansas Labor Secretary Karin Brownlee said about that compromise: “The goal is to make as many winners as possible.”