The battle to pass agency worker protections in New Jersey illustrates the difficulty of enacting far-reaching laws for this growing segment of the workforce despite fierce opposition from corporate groups.
The New Jersey bill (A1474) would be the most sweeping temp agency measure passed in the US if it becomes law. But there has been intense lobbying by the American Staffing Association, which has a track record of blocking such efforts, even in Democratic-majority parliaments.
The increasing use of agency and contract work, particularly among healthcare workers during the Covid-19 pandemic, has caught the attention of trade unions and progressive policy makers. Despite this, only a handful of states have specific agency worker protection laws in the works, lagging behind the proliferation of other pro-employee legislation, such as higher minimum wages and limits on employee non-compete clauses.
“There is very, very little regulation for contingent workers in this country. Other countries are doing much more,” said Laura Padin, director of work structures at the National Employment Law Project. Some countries mandate equal pay for temporary workers and prohibit the use of temporary workers in hazardous industries, she said.
Padin and other workers’ advocates are trying to change that, though they recognize it’s a steep climb. Business groups, including the American Staffing Association, say the agency work model doesn’t need major legislative changes, just better enforcement of existing laws to crack down on fly-by-night agencies that don’t play by the rules.
Agency workers are largely governed by the same federal labor laws as traditional direct-employed workers, and in many cases are also covered by state programs such as workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance, said Toby Malara, vice president of government relations for the American Staffing Association.
“The idea that there should be separate laws for temporary workers is simply not correct,” he said.
Winding path in NJ
If the New Jersey bill becomes law, it would subject employment agencies and the companies that contract with them to potential lawsuits by employees for alleged violations, either individually or as a group.
Among many provisions, the bill would create the only law in the country requiring employers to pay temporary workers the same average wage plus the cash equivalent of benefits as their permanent, direct employees doing the same or similar work.
The bill has already passed the New Jersey legislature once, but Gov. Phil Murphy (D) conditionally vetoed it in September and asked state legislators to make amendments, including some requested by the staff association.
The state assembly approved the revised version in October, but the Senate has scheduled a vote twice and then postponed it, the last time on Nov. 21, because the bill didn’t get enough votes to pass.
The staff association still opposed the bill after Murphy’s revisions and has urged senators to negotiate with the industry to pass a less sweeping “right to know” bill instead, Malara said.
The governor’s version of the bill would “raise the cost of employing agency workers so much that it becomes almost unworkable,” said Alexis Bailey, vice president of government affairs at the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, who also told the law lobbied. bill.
One of the bill’s sponsors was sick with Covid-19 on Nov. 21, and the Senate president recently stopped allowing remote voting for senators who are sick, New Labor executive director Lou Kimmel said. , a New Jersey labor rights group. The bill could get another chance on a final vote in the Senate on Dec. 22, he said.
“New Jersey is seen as a model” for state agency worker protection bills, “but there are lessons to be learned here,” Kimmel said. “It’s not a slam dunk,” he said, even in a state with a Democratic-majority legislature and other worker protections like a high minimum wage, paid sick leave and paid family leave.
Narrow, blue collar focus
California, Illinois, Massachusetts and Washington have passed various laws to regulate temporary work arrangements, generally taking a narrower approach than New Jersey’s proposal. Washington law only requires employment agencies to evaluate job site hazards and provide temporary workers with safety training.
Massachusetts requires companies to provide employees with predetermined information before each assignment, such as the name of the company, the type of work they will be doing, the salary, and who to contact in case of an injury or other problem, as well as limiting the fees staffing agencies can charge employees.
Those Massachusetts and Washington laws began as broader legislative proposals to provide a range of protections for temporary workers, but each was narrowed down over several legislative sessions as the industry pushed back.
Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives also introduced a federal proposal in 2020 similar to New Jersey’s bill, including the equal pay requirement, but failed to advance it.
Nearly all the laws on the books, even New Jersey’s proposal, apply to blue-collar jobs such as manufacturing, warehousing or food service, but exclude occupations where companies increasingly rely on temporary, contract labor, such as technicians and nurses.
“We need to see laws regulating both white-collar workers and blue-collar workers and create some baselines for how employees are treated,” said Roberto Clack, executive director of Temp Worker Justice.
A California wage transparency law that took effect this year took a step in that direction, he said. In addition to requiring salary information in job postings, the law expands the requirement that employers report wage data by race and gender to a government agency, covering not only employees but also contracted employment.
“I haven’t seen a huge cry to protect professionals, administrative staff, IT professionals,” Malara said. “As that increases over time, we’ll definitely sit down with people and talk about something that addresses those concerns.”
Looking ahead, workers’ advocates aim to expand agency worker protections first in states that already have laws on the books, such as spreading the equal pay demand in the bill from New Jersey to Illinois, Padin said.
“We’ve only seen this kind of work structure grow, and the pandemic has contributed to that, especially in healthcare, where we’re seeing tremendous growth in staffing agencies,” Clack said. “The labor movement really needs to do more about this and pass more legislation across the country.”