Ed Hawthorne, president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, and Sen. Julie Kushner, co-chair of the Labor Committee Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

Citing persistent workforce shortages, labor proponents made a case Thursday that Connecticut had entered a workers’ market that should facilitate the passage of policies like predictable scheduling requirements and an expansion of the state’s paid sick days program.

The legislature’s Labor and Public Employees Committee heard testimony during an all-day hearing on an aggressive slate of pro-labor bills. On the agenda were proposals to scrap a long-standing subminimum wage for wait staff and bartenders as well as establish better pay and working conditions for rideshare and delivery drivers.

The committee also weighed proposals to expand 2011’s paid sick days law, which provides up to 40 hours of paid sick time a year to workers employed by businesses with 50 or more employees. One bill would broaden the program to include all private sector workers, double the amount of time accrued and generally ease the criteria for using the time. 

a green button that says support and red button that says oppose
Click above to vote and comment on SB 1178: AN ACT EXPANDING CONNECTICUT PAID SICK DAYS

During a press conference prior to the hearing, Ed Hawthorne, president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, recalled the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when frontline employees remained on the job. 

“All these workers were deemed essential during the height of the pandemic and now they’re dealing with sky high inflation,” Hawthorne said. “Let’s boost their wages, give them predictable schedules and allow them time off when they’re sick.” 

Another bill aims to assist workers juggling multiple part-time jobs by requiring certain large employers with at least 500 workers and 30 locations around the world to post schedules for their employees at least two weeks ahead of time and compensate employees for last-minute changes. 

a green button that says support and red button that says oppose
Click above to vote and comment on HB 6859: AN ACT CONCERNING PREDICTABLE SCHEDULING

In an interview Thursday, Eric Gjede, vice president of public policy at the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, said the legislative panel had taken steps to advance a number of proposals this session which the business community found troubling. 

“What strikes me is that there are so many bills this year that seem to target very small businesses,” Gjede said. “On top of what challenges they’re already facing right now with Connecticut’s obviously pretty severe workforce shortage, we’re dealing with inflation issues and lingering supply chain issues. These things are piling up.”

Connecticut has a wide disparity between the number of available jobs and the number of residents in the job market. As of late January, the state had more than 100,000 open jobs and less than 30,000 people collecting unemployment benefits, according to statistics from the state Labor Department. 

Union advocates and sympathetic lawmakers argue that imbalance provides them with leverage to tip the scales in favor of policies that require better working conditions. Sen. Martha Marx, a New London Democrat and member and former president of nurses’ union AFT Local 5119, dismissed the idea of establishing working groups to solve Connecticut’s labor shortage during testimony on Thursday. The answer was simpler, she argued.

“It is a workers’ market. We should be the ones that are calling the shots,” Marx said. “We should be the ones getting the good benefits — getting the benefits we have deserved for decades that finally — finally we have the guts to get up and ask for them.”

Gjede argued that employers have already responded with better working conditions: nearly half of CBIA members sampled in a recent survey reported their largest planned investments for 2023 were personnel expenses like higher wages and better benefits. Few had seen high numbers of workers quitting, he said. 

“They’re actually quite happy where they are and what benefits and wages they’re receiving. There’s just not enough people in this state,” Gjede said. “Employers are already bending over backwards to make sure that people are happy.”

At any rate, proponents of the committee’s bills say the current labor conditions provide workers with an opportunity to codify better working conditions going forward.

“At times when there’s a tight labor market, that’s times when labor can say ‘Okay, now you’ve got to treat us fairly if you want us to come work for you,’” Sen. Julie Kushner, a Danbury Democrat who co-chairs the panel, said.