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New Laws For Fair Wages And Accountability

Two bills in the Oregon Legislature regarding wage theft and wage and hour violations had public hearings in the House last week. They are each part of a broader effort to hold employers to higher standards on how they treat and pay their workers.

Rep. Nancy Nathanson (D-Eugene) is the chief sponsor of HB 3137, a bill that would make it unlawful for employers to make their employees sign off on falsified time cards. In testimony to the House Committee on Business and Labor, she explained that her attention was drawn to the issue by an employee who was forced to document hours in a way that meant the employer wouldn’t have to pay overtime. The employee had worked more than 40 hours a week over the pay period. The employee wasn’t given a copy of the timecard and had no documentation to prove wage theft had occurred.

“Workers subjected to this kind of practice are working long hours to support their family; they’re exploited as they struggle to make ends meet,” Nathanson said. Her draft of HB 3137 would make it illegal for employers to induce employees to sign documents containing false hours worked or compensation received. It would also protect workers from retribution if they reported that their workplace was violating the law. 

House Committee members questioned Nathanson’s bill, asking whether the “hole” that this bill is meant to fill to make sure workers are paid for all hours is really a big hole at all. Legislators questioned whether a new law would really affect employers who are determined to shortchange their employees. 

Betsy Earls, vice president and counsel for Associated Oregon Industries, offered testimony against the bill. She said it’s “already against the law” and whistleblowers are “already protected.” The bill is still in committee.

HB 2386, another bill the committee looked at last week, would give the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries an additional tool to enforce existing wage and hour laws. It would authorize the commissioner of Labor and Industries to issue cease and desist orders to employers under certain circumstances. 

Charlie Burr, communications director for BOLI, says the bill would help his agency hold bad actors accountable. Right now, they have to go to the circuit court to get a cease and desist order. If HB 2386 passes, they will only need to get an order from the commissioner of Labor and Industries. Currently, some civil rights violations are handled this way.

At the public hearing, legislators voiced concerns that the bill would be a tool to shut down businesses. Burr says that usually, cease and desist orders just require a halt of whatever unlawful activity is taking place. He said they can involve requiring a business to cease operations for a few days for an investigation. The bill passed out of committee with all six Democrats voting for it, and all five Republicans voting against.

 Rep. Greg Barreto (R-Cove) sent out a “Republican Rapid Response Action Alert” email, claiming the bill would leave employers at the total mercy of one agency. He wrote that BOLI already fulfills the roles of investigator and prosecutor and questioned the fairness of the agency serving as the judge as well. 

The bill is currently scheduled for a third reading in the House on March 26.