Legislative Session 2021 for Working Families: Disastrous Hits, Lost Opportunities, a Few Wins, Unfinished Business

A dismal 87th regular session of the Texas Legislature exiled working families further into the wilderness, Texas AFL-CIO President Rick Levy said today.

“Two statewide disasters brought Texans together and gave us hope that lawmakers would reflect that unity,” Levy said. “Essential workers, who risked everything to keep Texas going through unprecedented pandemic and winter storm fallout, were hailed as heroes. But as we survey where the legislative session ended up, all that is a foggy memory, and unfortunately, this legislative session ended up being a third statewide disaster.”

“The session was more about narrow partisan brownie points and misplaced priorities than doing anything to help families get a fair shot to achieve their dreams. There were so many needs to address, and we were left with missed opportunities to address in any meaningful way such kitchen table issues as health care, unemployment, and a broad range of workplace issues,” Levy said.    

“Make no mistake: It could have been worse. Courageous legislators blocked the passage of measures to strip voting rights (SB 7) and the rights of local communities to act on the needs of their communities (SB 14). We thank legislators who fought against all odds for workers and scored important, if limited, wins in a toxic environment.”

“The Governor can threaten, legislative leaders can bluster, and we know special sessions await. But the Texas AFL-CIO, as always, will fight to defend working families and defend democracy. As we know from our fights for dignity in the workplace: one day longer, one day stronger.”Levy cited key results of the session.

Pending Disasters

SB 7 and related bills aim to suppress voting, plain and simple. Labor will continue to fight any provision that would make it harder to vote. 

—State employees again were taken for granted. SB 321, a bait-and-switch bill rushed to completion, will foist a cheaper pension system on future state employees under the Employees Retirement System even as some legislators who supported the bill stand to receive their own personal windfall. Once again, state employees were denied a general pay raise. The problem of state employee turnover is likely to get worse.

 —HB 3979 is a civics bill based on ideology. At heart the bill insults teachers by dictating how they can discuss current events and restricting ways they can encourage students to become active citizens. At least in its final version the measure includes requirements that the State Board of Education include in curricula materials that reflect the contributions of persons of color to U.S. history, the role of slavery and other white supremacy in our history, and even labor history. A veto would be the best civics lesson this bill can provide.

 —The stalled SB 14, erasing the ability of local governments to enact workplace protections, second-guesses a fair shot for working families. Outlawing local floors for rest and water breaks for construction workers, fair-chance hiring, fair scheduling, and earned paid sick leave caters only to low-road employers.

Missed Opportunitie

Health Care — Texas again rejected tens of billions of dollars in available federal funds that would cover 1 million Texans and remove our state from its customary place at the bottom of health care coverage. Instead, we are continuing on a path of trying to cancel the Affordable Care Act for every other state. This is the most warped of priorities.

Woes for Workers Who Lost Their Jobs — It’s galling that significant unemployment reform bills again fell short and, worse yet, that Gov. Greg Abbott cut off federal Unemployment Insurance benefits while Texas families continue to suffer economically. In a year that saw more than 4 million Texans apply for Unemployment Insurance benefits and many of them go hours, days or weeks without being able to reach the Texas Workforce Commission, the Legislature let stand a frayed lifeline for workers who lose their jobs through no fault of their own. 

Workers’ Compensation — While we are glad for the success of SB 22, easing the path for First Responders and Correctional Officers to obtain workers’ compensation benefits if they contracted COVID-19, the same consideration should have gone to other essential workers. In particular, we are disappointed a bill to establish the same presumption of coverage for nurses failed. 

Future of Work — Lawmakers rejected a bill that would have put reins on employers who wrongly classify workers as independent contractors to avoid paying basic obligations. That practice remains unfair not just to the workers, but to other businesses that follow the law. 

Strong Results 

A Corner of Health Care — Though the effort to expand health coverage to more Texans was a large failure, new Texas moms who are eligible for Medicaid stand to benefit from HB 133, expanding postpartum coverage from four weeks to six months. Bonus: The bill is likely to save, by far,  more than it costs.

Plumbing Safety — HB 636, extending the Board of Plumbing Examiners, was a win for public safety. Plumbers in Texas make sure that homes, commercial buildings, hospitals and other venues are safe for all Texans.

Apprenticeships — SB 337, the “Helmets to Hardhats” bill, will encourage military veterans to enter registered apprenticeship programs, including the peerless Building Trades union programs.

Economic Development — Failure to extend Chapter 313 school property tax breaks, which labor opposed in their current form, may not be the final word. But it sends a clear signal that lawmakers feel pressure from communities saying that companies should not be able to secure billions of dollars in tax exemptions when they were coming to Texas anyway and when the jobs they promise don’t pan out or aren’t high-quality in the first place. Related bright spot: SB 609, a music incubator rebate program to resuscitate an industry decimated by the pandemic, was signed into law.

Sexual Harassment — SB 45, which extends the prohibition against sexual harassment under the Labor Code to all employers — not just those with 15 or more employees — reached the Governor’s desk. Also on the governor’s desk: SB 21, extending the statute of limitations for sexual harassment complaints to 300 days. (SB 2233, which would have required lobbyists to take a sexual harassment course, died at the end of the session.)

Buy American — Lawmakers passed measures that will enact preferences for American- and Texas-made products, including SB 783, which expands an existing preference for purchase of American steel and iron to include college and university construction projects.

Payday Lending — Labor joined in multiple victories against abusive payday lending practices, helping kill several bills and amendments that would have loosened curbs on sky-high interest rates and restricted local regulation.