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Read the fine print on “Worker Bill of Rights”

UPDATED: Fri., Oct. 9, 2015, 8:42 p.m.

Sue Lani Madsen (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Sue Lani Madsen (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

When was the last time you read the Terms and Conditions before clicking “I Accept”?

Conventional wisdom is that you read a whole contract before signing, but we regularly ignore sound advice in our eagerness to access free Wi-Fi or open up a new suite of software.

Maybe it doesn’t matter if we blindly click yes. I know I’ve given up trying to read it all, and just hope I haven’t granted access to my bank account.

But when it comes to voting on initiatives, we all need to read the fine print and not just ballot titles. Consider Proposition 1 - the Worker Bill of Rights. It’s an initiative appearing on the ballot in the city of Spokane promising the “right to a family wage when employed by a large employer, right to equal pay for equal work, right not to be wrongfully terminated, and elevates Charter rights above rights claimed by corporations.”

I sent identically worded requests for background information to the “Yes on Prop 1” and “No on Prop 1” groups seeking information on both sides. Both responded courteously and promptly.

The response from the “Yes on Prop 1” campaign included this offhand remark: “Coming at it from a both sides view doesn’t really answer the question because it assumes that, 1. there are two legitimate sides and 2. that each is operating from a place of truth.”

That struck me as a bit odd, considering the links provided by Envision Spokane’s campaign website didn’t include the ballot title or the text of the initiative. Not exactly operating from a place of legitimacy and truth.

Perhaps that’s because reading the text makes it clear there are problems in the fine print, starting with legislating a Right to a Family Wage and not defining family. “A household size of two with one person employed” gives no hint on who that second person is – an adult, teenager, infant? If no calculation is made using the state charts, the default uses a federal reference. The Washington Policy Center ran the numbers under the conflicting rules of the fine print and came up with a range between $11.85 and $23.06 per hour. That sounds ripe for litigation.

The second article covers a Right to Equal Pay, something the hearing examiner noted in his review as “may be largely redundant with state law.” Here’s the list of protected classes in the initiative: “gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, familial status, race, ethnicity, national origin, citizenship, developmental, mental, or physical ability.” And here’s the list under current state law: “race, creed, color, national origin, sex, honorably discharged veteran or military status, sexual orientation, or the presence of any sensory, mental, or physical disability or the use of a trained dog guide or service animal by a person with a disability.” Federal law has yet another list, redundant with slight nuances. More fodder for litigation.

What employers really need is clarity on the grounds on which employers can discriminate in hiring and firing. I propose enthusiasm, solid oral language skills, ability to listen, desire to be independent, ability to work well with others, respect for others’ space, and take turns in conversation in meetings and small groups. That’s a typical kindergarten readiness list, not too much to ask of adults.

Next is the Right Not To Be Wrongfully Terminated. The initiative limits the basis for justification to work performance (after timely and adequate notice and opportunities for improvement) or economic hardship (documented and demonstrated by the employer). “Timely and adequate” are magnet words for litigation, especially when the initiative grants an interested nonprofit the right to bring suit and collect attorneys’ fees. Employers are explicitly blocked from recovering costs of defending a frivolous claim. It’s a setup for legal blackmail.

The last section is Corporate Powers Subordinate to People’s Rights. Back to the hearing examiner: “The subordination of corporate rights is accomplished by depriving corporations of access to the courts. The Hearing Examiner believes this component of the initiative is flawed and would not be sustained by the courts.” More lawyers, this time paid for by taxpayers.

A “Read It For Yourself” link to the full text is prominently positioned on the website of the “No on Prop 1” campaign (www.protectspokanejobs.com). Both sides have put passionate effort into making their case to the voters. Read the fine print for yourself before you vote.


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