PHOENIX — State lawmakers are moving to undermine the ability of cities to require employers to provide things like sick leave to local workers.
And they’re doing it in a back-door way.
Legislation set for a House vote Monday would leave undisturbed what businesses have finally conceded they cannot do: preclude cities and counties from setting minimum wages higher than what the state requires.
That’s because a 2006 voter-approved minimum-wage law specifically permits such local options.
Instead, HB 2579 seeks to narrow the definition of exactly what “wages” are, to include only the cash compensation paid.
The legislation specifically says that certain things are not wages. That includes everything from fringe benefits like health insurance, sick pay, maternity leave and vacation pay.
Chianne Hewer, lobbyist for the Arizona Restaurant Association, acknowledged the move is designed to short-circuit any move by any city to tell her members — or any other employer — that they have to provide any of that, as none of it is required under state law.
The concerns are more than academic.
Tucson City Councilwoman Regina Romero has been pushing for an ordinance to make sick leave part of a “working family agenda.”
She contends that would help the working poor, especially mothers. Romero said about half the Tucson workforce does not have access to earned sick leave.
Romero’s proposals have run into stiff opposition from members of the business community. But if HB 2579 becomes law, they would no longer have to worry about what the council does.
The fight has its roots in the 2006 initiative pushed by the AFL-CIO and the United Food and Commercial Workers. It required employers to pay $6.75 an hour at a time when the federal minimum wage was $5.15. Voters approved it by a 2-1 margin.
The same law requires annual adjustments tied to inflation. The current state minimum is $8.05 an hour, compared to $7.25 at the federal level.
Fearful some communities could push the figure even higher, businesses got the Republican-controlled Legislature to vote in 2013 to block such “living-wage” laws.
But Attorney General Mark Brnovich ruled that conflicts with language in the 2006 initiative — which lawmakers cannot alter — specifically allowing local options on wages.
This new measure seeks to get around that by narrowing the definition of what is a “wage.”
At a hearing earlier this month, Hewer told lawmakers that HB 2579 simply is “clarifying” the 2013 law.
“There’s a lot of confusion right now about what our language is, who’s regulating it, and what the difference is between the wage and something like maternity leave, a 401(k) package, paid time off,” she said.
Hewer said restaurants consider those “things they have to keep in their pocket to be competitive against that restaurant across the street.”
Rep. Stefanie Mach, D-Tucson, said she sees no reason to override what cities decide is in the best interests of their residents.
But Rep. Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, had a different take.
“The role of government is to protect individual rights,” he said, citing state constitutional provisions. “That is a clear component of this bill.”
The only recorded vote to this point came in the House Commerce Committee, which approved the change on a party-line vote. It gained preliminary approval Thursday on a voice vote, setting the stage for a roll-call vote on Monday.
Rebekah Friend, executive director of the state AFL-CIO, said if the measure becomes law, it likely will face a legal challenge.
“I don’t think they can do it,” she said.
Friend said she reads the voter-protected language of the 2006 ballot measure to preserve a local option for everything that was considered a “wage” at that time, the same language as currently exists. And it defines wages as including “sick pay, vacation pay, severance pay, commissions, bonuses and other amounts promised when the employer has a policy or a practice of making such payments.”
Republican lawmakers are not the only ones trying to throw roadblocks in the path of local options on things like wages.
In his State of the State speech in January, Gov. Doug Ducey fired a salvo at cities that are considering adopting their own living-wage requirements. He called such moves “trendy, feel-good policies that are stifling opportunity across the nation.”
And the governor said he’d do more than talk about it.
“I will use every constitutional power of the executive branch and leverage every legislative relationship to protect small businesses and the working men and women they employ,” Ducey threatened. He said that would include cutting state-share revenues for communities that adopt a minimum wage higher than Arizona law mandates.
Gubernatorial press aide Daniel Scarpinato said his boss’ views on living wages extend to fringe benefits. Romero said it’s wrong of Ducey to try to block the issue.
“Let’s have a conversation on how we improve the lives of the working poor in our state,” she said, rather than simply threatening cities with loss of state aid.
“I’m open to a conversation,” Romero continued, “but I’m not open to just being shut out.”