Businesses that laid off workers during the pandemic may soon be required to prioritize senior employees when they begin hiring again, according to a bill approved by the State Senate on Tuesday.
The bill was approved 19-15 on party lines, with the exception of State Sen. Christine Cohen, D-Guilford, who opposed the bill.
Under the bill, workers who are laid off from a job between March 10, 2020 and December 31, 2024 for reasons related to the COVID-19 pandemic have to be given priority when a business is rehiring. These workers must have worked for the business for at least half of the year prior to being laid off.
The bill originally would have applied to all workplaces, but was narrowed to affect only employees in the hotel and hospitality industries, food service and building services such as janitorial staff and maintenance workers. State Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury, said these industries were singled out because of the high number of low-wage workers they employ and the large impact that the pandemic has had on these industries.
The bill mandates that when an employer has an opening, he or she must send notice within five days to any laid-off workers who are qualified for the job opening by mail or email and via text message.
A worker can qualify for a job opening if he or she held a similar position before the pandemic or can train to become qualified for the position. Workers who have worked the longest period of time will have the first opportunity to return.
State Sen. Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, recalled meeting some workers at a McDonalds at a rest stop in Darien. He said that after the pandemic, some of the workers who had been there the longest, some upward of 20 years, hadn’t been called back to work.
“I think a lot of us saw that as very unfair,” he said. “These are not people who have lots of savings they can fall back on … There’s no reason why they shouldn’t have been called back to work.”
Kushner said that the bill was designed to avoid situations in which employers might choose to hire younger or less experienced workers rather than rehiring workers who they might have to pay more.
Several unions testified in support of the bill in a public hearing in February. Sal Luciano, president of the AFL-CIO in Connecticut, said that the bill would protect non-union workers and subcontracted workers, such as janitorial staff, who might be particularly at risk.
“There is always a risk of discrimination and retaliation in the recall of workers from layoff,” he testified. “After decades on the job, older workers feel employers will hire younger workers at lower rates of pay.”
“It makes business sense to rehire skilled veteran workers when reopening. Doing so allows the employer to quickly return to pre-pandemic activities without the added stress, delay and expense of training new workers,” he added.
“A tremendous overreach”
State Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, called the bill a “tremendous overreach” and criticized the legislation for what he called a lack of clarity.
“Our system is based on freedom, and business owners are in business to make a profit,” said Sampson.
While the bill is not intended to apply to people who were fired or voluntarily quit a job, Sampson pointed out that Connecticut is an at-will state, meaning that an employer can dismiss an employee without giving a reason. He said that it would be too difficult to prove that economics did not play a factor in an employee’s dismissal.
State Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, said he did not understand why the bill extended until December of 2024.
“I just can’t understand at all why we’re pushing it out two and a half more years in a pandemic situation that is coming to its end,” said Formica.
Eric Gjede, vice president of government affairs at the Connecticut Business Industries Association, said the fear of discrimination against older workers was out of step with the current job market.
“I think right now in Connecticut, [we’re] so desperate for workers, none of that stuff even matters now,” he said.
Gjede said he was also concerned about what would happen if a new owner was still required to offer job openings to employees of a prior owner. He said employers might not even be able to find those workers.
“We just think that the bill itself required a lot more thought than was actually put into it,” he said.
Cohen said that she thought the bill was “well-intentioned” but would not to support it after hearing from constituents in her area.
“I supported the amendment because I appreciated the spirit of compromise for small business,” said Cohen. “However, I heard from a number of businesses in my district who were concerned about the adverse impacts.”
The bill also mandates that if a worker declined a job offer during the pandemic because of health or age, or the health of a family member, they are still eligible for future offers. Sampson introduced an amendment eliminating that clause, but failed.
Two other proposed amendments — one that would require employers to consider an employee’s tenure, disciplinary record and skill level before offering a job, and one that would protect businesses from liability for any discriminatory hiring that could result from the legislation, both failed in the Senate.
The bill will now be sent to the House for discussion.