Danbury State Senator Optimistic About Passing Worker-Friendly Legislation in 2024

State Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury (CT Examiner).


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DANBURY — Labor and Public Employees Committee Co-Chair State Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury, expressed optimism in passing additional worker-friendly measures in the upcoming legislative session, citing the committee’s success in 2023.

Kushner, a longtime organizer and eventual director of the United Auto Workers union, has been a fierce advocate in the state Legislature for bills addressing paid sick days, paid family and medical leave, and unemployment for striking workers.

The deputy president pro tempore recently discussed last year’s session, her hopes for the 2024 session — which kicks off Feb. 7 — and why she believes unions are making a comeback.

Kushner, co-chair of the 12-member panel since she was first elected in 2019, said Labor and Public Employees was one of the busiest committees in 2023, with 50 bills coming out of committee and 11 of them passing. Kushner co-chairs the committee with State Rep. Manny Sanchez, D-New Britain.

The 71-year-old Kushner, who represents Danbury and portions of New Fairfield and Ridgefield in western Connecticut, told CT Examiner that Gov. Ned Lamont has been a fierce supporter over the last several years of many proposals put forth by the committee, which has eight Democrats and four Republican members.

“I think the governor has definitely been a supporter of major bills that we’ve had in our labor committee,” she said, including increasing the minimum wage and providing paid family and medical leave. “There is a huge advantage in having a governor who understands the importance of these issues.” 

Kushner said Lamont, who was a Greenwich businessman prior to his ascension to governor, “can be moved on” issues such as providing unemployment to striking workers.

She said the 2023 session saw several important measures passed out of committee to ultimately become law, including a new state law improving access to worker’s compensation benefits for firefighters who develop cancer via a Cancer Relief Fund. 

“It’s something we were working on for five years,” Kushner said. “It was critical that we recognize that cancer is one of the occupational diseases that is most prevalent amongst firefighters.”

The measure was signed by Lamont in August and went into effect Oct. 1.

The law creates a presumption during the worker’s compensation review process that a firefighter’s cancer diagnosis was the result of their work on the job unless proven otherwise. 

Kushner said there are specific cancers affecting the brain, respiratory and lymphatic systems, among others, that “are known to have been related to carcinogens that we see in fires.”

There are several qualifying factors, Kushner noted, including not having smoked cigarettes for at least 15 years, having been on the job for at least five years, and having agreed to submit to annual medical health screenings as recommended by their doctors.

She said the cancer relief fund currently has about $8 million in it.

Kushner said she’s also proud of a new law that expands the authority of the state Department of Labor to issue stop orders on construction sites if there are violations of state statutes. 

“A common example [of a violation] is if an employer hasn’t been paying into worker’s compensation,” Kushner said. “It’s a dangerous job on these construction sites. It can really leave the worker in a bad place. We are hoping that the added penalties would act as more of a deterrent to the bad actors.”

Another bill that passed last year dealt with expanding worker’s compensation to all workers — not just police and firefighters and EMT dispatchers — who experience trauma on the job. The qualifying events, she explained, includes witnessing a loss of life or dismemberment, or loss of a limb on the job.

Kushner said her background in negotiations during her time with the UAW has made her a stronger lawmaker.

“I think one of the things I realized as soon as I was elected is that my background in negotiations would be helpful,” said Kushner, noting her work in passing the Paid Family Medical Leave Act in 2019.

As committee co-chair, Kushner said she “ended up negotiating with multiple parties,” including the governor’s office and House and Senate leadership.

“I believe my background specifically around negotiating these kinds of benefits and union contracts [with the UAW] was extremely helpful,” she said.

For all the wins of the 2023 legislative session, Kushner said there was also disappointment from pushback from the Connecticut Business and Industry Association and even some Republicans on the committee.

Kushner said the committee is very partisan and that committee bills are often approved along party lines.

“We have a Labor Committee and a Commerce Committee in the Legislature,” Kushner said. “The Commerce Committee really should be, and is charged with, putting forward bills that  work for business. And the Labor & Public Employees Committee is charged with putting forth bills that create a balance, making sure we are also addressing the needs of working people. Unfortunately, I think, too often with the Labor Committee, there have been appointments on the Republican side that really are representing business interests and not workers interest. I wouldn’t say that’s universal and I think there has been some improvements recently.”

Top priorities this year relate to addressing two bills that did not pass in 2023 — one that would allow striking workers to receive unemployment benefits after being on strike for two weeks, and another expanding the 2011 law mandating paid sick days for certain workers in the service sector. Kushner is supporting expanding paid sick days — up to 40 hours a year — to all workers employed by companies with 50 or more employees.

Kushner believes that, with some work, both measures could pass the Senate and House.

“They both have a great chance [of passing],” she said. “I think, this year, we will have more time to work on our colleagues. The paid sick days [measure] was passed in the Senate, so we intend to work on that early so that we have enough time in the House to really educate our colleagues and make sure they understand [the bills].”

Union membership in this country has dropped precipitously the past few decades. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the union membership rate in the United States fell by 0.2 percentage points to 10.1 percent in 2022 — the lowest on record. According to the bureau, in 1983, the first year for which comparable data was available, union membership was at 20.1 percent.

Despite the data, Kushner said she likes what she sees from labor organizers and workers, primarily younger ones.

Asked if unions were making a comeback, Kushner responded: “Absolutely.”

“I think that what’s been so exciting in the last couple of years is seeing union organizing in new industries, in new areas,” Kushner said. “And you see people excited about the opportunity, particularly young people, to have a greater voice at work.”

Kushner said the pushback she has received from some business groups in Connecticut doesn’t make sense. When workers are productive and happy at work, she said, it bodes well for the employer too.

“If businesses don’t thrive, then workers do not have those opportunities,” Kushner said. “I fully recognize the importance of businesses to be successful, but I also recognize that there has to be a balance and that workers have to be treated [with respect].”

Robert Storace

Robert Storace is a veteran reporter with stints at New Britain Herald, the New Haven Register, the Connecticut Post, Hartford Business Journal and the Connecticut Law Tribune. Storace covers the State Capitol for CT Examiner. T: 203 437 5950