05/17/2012 06:28 pm ET

Kansas Labor Bill: Lawmakers Overhauling State Labor Laws

Kansas lawmakers are in the process of drafting a sweeping overhaul of the state's labor laws that opponents fear could hurt all non-white collar workers in the state.

State lawmakers have been in conference committee meetings all week writing a final version of a labor bill, which would bring together a series of proposals affecting workplace safety, when unemployment insurance can be paid, and the selection of workers' compensation judges. The measures are backed by Gov. Sam Brownback's (R) administration.

"It is ridiculous," Rep. Mike Slattery (D-Mission), one of two Democrats on the Republican-dominated committee, told HuffPost. "This is the omnibus anti-labor bill."

The bill, if passed, would delay unemployment pay until all severance is paid, and delaying unemployment benefits until all vacation time pay is used up. Similar provisions have become law in at least 10 other states.

It also would repeal state Department of Labor health and safety checks, and discontinue Department of Labor legal representation for workers seeking wage claims of less than $10,000 in court. It would abolish the state's Employment Security Advisory Council, which advises the state on policy. Department of Labor Secretary Karin Brownlee has not convened the panel since taking office last year.

Other provisions under consideration include changing the composition of the nominating committee for workers' compensation judges, which currently has a state Chamber of Commerce representative and an AFL-CIO representative. The change -- which was written by the Department of Labor and Chamber of Commerce -- would expand the panel to seven, adding seats for the National Federation of Independent Business, the Society for Human Resources Management, the Kansas Self-Insurers Association, a public employee representative and a labor secretary. Chamber officials told HuffPost this would foster more diversity in the selection process. Union officials are concerned the new panel would tilt toward businesses.

Eric Stafford, the Chamber of Commerce's legislative director, said the group also wants to include a provision to reduce the state's unemployment insurance contribution rate for new businesses from 4 percent for the first two years to 2.7 percent. He said this would create new jobs while keeping the rate above neighboring states.

"We're one of the higher rates in the region," Stafford said.

Stafford said the Chamber is supportive of the overall legislation, noting that it would help the state's economic outlook. He defended the unemployment changes, saying they would prevent manufacturing workers from receiving unemployment while being paid vacation time. The Chamber also supports paying manufacturing workers unemployment during unpaid furloughs, he said.

Stafford expects most of the package to be adopted this year, except for the judicial nomination portion, he said.

Slattery, the ranking Democrat on the House Commerce Committee, said Brownlee indicated support in private discussions with the committee. He said he believes the measures will pass the House, but have a "50/50 chance" in the Senate.

"The Department of Labor is actually the Department Against Labor," Slattery said, noting he considered proposing a merger of the agency with the state Department of Commerce. "They are one and the same. The Department of Labor is the Department of Big Business in Kansas. They are going against anyone without a white collar job."

There may be another motive in the measures -- the chance to reduce the political impact of organized labor in the state, which largely donates to Democrats, Slattery said.

"It eliminates a majority funding source for Democrats," he said of the potential long-term impact.