Legislative Update - Jan. 9. 2021

The ULLCO Sentinel 

Weekly Labor Update on the 87th Texas Legislature

Jan. 9, 2021 — #1

The Basics

  • What the heck is this? The ULLCO Sentinel is a newsletter of the Texas AFL-CIO covering labor-related issues involving the Texas Legislature. It appears on a weekly basis when the Legislature meets. The 87th session of the Texas Legislature convenes beginning Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021, for 140 days.

  • What the heck is ULLCO? ULLCO stands for United Labor Legislative Committee, which takes positions on pending legislation that affects working families in Texas. ULLCO consists of labor union activists and some allies.

  • What the heck is the Texas AFL-CIO? The Texas AFL-CIO is a federation of labor unions. We advocate for working families in Texas. We've been around since the late 1950s, promoting a Fair Shot agenda for better lives for working people. For decades before that, we were two organizations — the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO); hence, AFL-CIO.

  • Why cover the Texas Legislature? Notice the absence of a "heck" in this question. The Texas Legislature governs much of your life, usually very quietly, by passing laws that affect your rights, your finances, and many everyday practical matters. Your job benefits, your property taxes, the sales taxes you pay when you buy goods, the rules of the road, your ability to obtain health insurance, election procedures, the police and court systems, and many other aspects of your life run in whole or in part through laws passed by the Legislature. This newsletter aims to inform and, where needed, spur you to action.

Pandemic Session

The COVID-19 pandemic has dominated our lives for nearly a year and will dominate the 87th session of the Texas Legislature. Major issues affecting working people, including the two-year state budget, education, health care, disaster relief, employment and unemployment, racial justice, and voting rights arrive in a new light.

  • Unprecedented Rules — Pandemic-related delays or not, the session runs until May 31. Some lawmakers have discussed a slow rollout on a limited number of topics because of the spike in COVID-19. The adoption of rules in the House and Senate, to be debated next week, will set formal parameters on operations and access.

  • The Capitol — Everyone entering must wear a mask. Testing for COVID-19 is "highly recommended" upon entry. Security will be tight. The Capitol had been closed to the public for months because of the pandemic; in light of this week's attack by a Trump mob on the U.S. Capitol, it was temporarily closed again.

  • The House — The ceremonial first day, including what is ordinarily a gala swearing-in ceremony for lawmakers, will be highly restricted for the general public. All guest seating will be reserved and ticketed. Air purification units and hand sanitizer stations are installed.

  • The Senate — Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has outlined a system where Senators and others entering the chamber must be tested for COVID-19. Access to offices will be limited to appointments. Witnesses at hearings on bills may need to register days in advance. Media are to be limited to four pool reporters seated in the gallery, rather than their traditional place on the floor.

  • Public Access to Lawmakers — The traditional system that allows most anyone to walk into the Capitol (through metal detectors), go to hearings, sign in with positions on bills, and work the hallways will give way to narrower bottlenecks upon entry and diminished personal access to lawmakers. Lawmakers are weighing remote sign-ins on bills and remote testimony at committee hearings, and it is unclear how public testimony will be accommodated.

  • New House Leadership — The House is expected to elect Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, to the agenda-leading Speaker's position. That will shuffle the deck on leadership and processes. The Texas AFL-CIO COPE endorsed Phelan's reelection to the House in 2020.

  • Not-So-New Senate Leadership — Patrick has called for Senators to reduce the threshold for considering legislation from 19 votes to 18 votes. That would continue to allow Republicans to pass a small group of purely partisan but very controversial bills with no Democratic support. With Democrats having flipped a seat on Nov. 3 (newly elected Sen. Roland Gutierrez in SD 19), Republicans now hold 18 seats. Before Patrick took office, the threshold for opening debate had been two-thirds, or 21 votes, which usually forced the majority party to negotiate with the minority party to pass controversial legislation

Pre-Filed Bills

This section will ordinarily include bills that ULLCO supports or opposes. For this preview, here is a small sample of bills already filed on labor-related issues:

Coronavirus — A number of bills would establish a presumption for public workers who contract COVID-19 that the illness was contracted on the job, spurring workers' compensation coverage. Examples of presumption legislation include: HB 34 by Canales (presumption for First Responders); HB 396 by Moody (nurses); HB 541 by Patterson (public safety employees); HB 637 by Canales and SB 107 by Powell (public safety employees);

Other pandemic-inspired pre-filed bills: HB 89 by Canales (temporary sales tax exemption for certain cleaning supplies, masks and gloves); HB351 by Talarico (air filtration standards at public schools and child care facilities); HB 665 by Landgraf (limit duration of emergency rules); HB 88 by Patterson (contact tracing regulation); SB 32 by Zaffirini (student loan repayments for exceptional service by professionals during pandemic); SB 79 by Miles (required public school reporting of student infections during disaster); SJR 17 and SB 264 by Menéndez (establish research consortium on infectious diseases)

Minimum Wage — Under current Texas law, the pathetically low state minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is tied to the federal minimum wage level. ULLCO has typically endorsed all efforts to raise the wage significantly. Bills related to the minimum wage include HB 60 by Reynolds ($15 an hour), HB 731 by Jessica Gonzalez ($15 an hour), HB 190 by Mary Gonzalez (database on wage theft), HB 224 by Ortega (reestablish local authority to raise the minimum wage); HB 250 by Meza ($15 for bus drivers in large school districts); and HB 255 by Meza (annual cost of living adjustment to minimum wage; see also, HB 615 by Goodwin).

Other Wage Issues — HB 344 by Canales (protect tipped employees from employer confiscation); HB 360 by Sherman (sex discrimination in wages); HB 863 by Romero (combat improper classification of workers as independent contractors); and SB 57 by Zaffirini (extend claiming period for employee to seek unpaid wages at Texas Workforce Commission).

Regulation of Plumbers — The late stages of the 2019 legislative session included a successful fight to stop legislation that would have ended the Board of Plumbing Examiners, which oversees qualifications for plumbers in Texas, and transfer the board's functions to a catch-all state regulatory agency. A legislative maneuver nearly killed the board, but the Plumbers and Pipefitters Union and Southwest Pipe Trades Association joined non-union colleagues in persuading Gov. Greg Abbott to continue the agency. At stake: fundamental safety in public buildings, hospitals and homes. Legislation is again needed to continue the agency, and Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, who fought every step of the way to preserve safety regulation in plumbing, has pre-filed HB 636 to accomplish that.

Unemployment Insurance — Some 4 million Texans applied for Unemployment Insurance benefits after losing their jobs through no fault of their own in the pandemic, and many were victimized by the state's long-term neglect of the system. A computer system from the 1980s and agency underfunding meant applicants could not apply either by phone or the Internet, sometimes for months. The Texas AFL-CIO proposed a 10-point plan for improving the system. So far, these bills have been pre-filed:

  • HB 145 by Rodriguez, which would remove the seven-day waiting period for eligibility for payment;
  • HB 157 by Rodriguez, which would expand and improve the shared work program that leverages UI benefits as a means of limiting or avoiding furloughs and layoffs; and
  • SB 255 by Menéndez, which would stop the Workforce Commission from clawing back overpayments of benefits that are due to the mistake of the agency.