Michigan Republicans Gutted a Wage Increase and Sick Leave Benefits. Now They Could Face Legal Action. (Updated)

A leading Michigan Democrat dubbed Republicans' efforts to undermine worker-friendly laws "undo and screw."

[Photo: The Michigan State Capitol building.]
Republican lawmakers are also rushing to make other modifications during the lame-duck session—from trying to dilute the powers of incoming Democrats elected to statewide office to changing how public education is overseen statewide. Shutterstock

UPDATE, December 14, 5:08 p.m.: Outgoing Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) on Friday signed Republican laws to water down paid sick leave and minimum wage measures, the Detroit News reports.

Sick leave advocates in Michigan are looking to sue the Republican-held state legislature for gutting the citizen-driven minimum wage and sick leave bills on Tuesday, during the lame-duck session.

Advocates see this as another Republican effort to undermine voters’ will, especially after the legislature moved pre-emptively to adopt the proposals in September to avoid letting voters decide at the ballot box in November. A voter-approved ballot initiative is harder to modify because it needs a three-fourths majority in both chambers to change, while bills passed on the floor can be modified with a simple majority.

The version approved in September used Michigan’s One Fair Wage campaign language. It involved increasing the standard minimum wage from $9.25 per hour to $12 by 2022, giving tipped workers an increase from $3.52 per hour to $12 by 2024, and giving workers up to 72 hours of earned sick time annually at all companies. In the watered-down Republican version passed this week, SB 1171 increases the minimum wage to $12.05 per hour and $4.58 per hour for tipped minimum wage workers by 2030. SB 1175 compels employers with more than 50 workers to offer up to 40 hours of paid sick time a year, according to the Detroit News.

“Our campaign believes there is a very good legal argument that what the legislature did was illegal and we will be exploring our legal options in the coming weeks,” Danielle Atkinson, founding director of Mothering Justice and co-chair of the MI Time to Care coalition that backed the bills, told Rewire.News.

Michigan lawmakers have never adopted and amended a citizen-backed law in the same session, prompting questions over the legality of doing so. They gave the new process a “cute name: adopt and amend,” said Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint), who has sponsored the sick leave bill since 2011.

“I call it undo and screw,” he said.

Ananich said Republicans’ attack on the wage and sick leave measures are unprecedented, unconstitutional, and just another example of the GOP’s complete disregard for the people’s will in Michigan.

Democrats sought a legal opinion last week. State Attorney General Bill Schuette, who ran for governor but lost to Democratic Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer in November, told the Detroit News it’s not illegal. This is in contrast to former Attorney General Frank Kelley’s 1964 decision saying such a move violates “the spirit and letter” of the state constitution.

The last-minute maneuver drew criticism from advocates and the public, who rallied Tuesday at the Michigan statehouse. Protesters, including a man wearing a duck-head costume, urged legislators not to scale back the minimum wage and paid sick leave law passed in September. Lobbyists snickered at testimony given by a restaurant worker who said she often shows up sick at work because she can’t afford to take a day off, said advocates who attended the committee hearings Tuesday.

“People are extremely upset and frustrated,” Atkinson said. “Especially people who were fooled by years of GOP promises of a good economy and how they can’t think about workers’ rights until we are stable. Now the economy is great but [GOP lawmakers] are still saying now is not a good time to talk about these issues. When is that time?”

Advocates have already filed paperwork to start collecting signatures for another petition drive. “By November 2020, just two years from now, voters can ensure this policy will be law in Michigan. And we will spend the next two years reminding voters of the elected officials who took away their sick time,” Atkinson said.

Ananich said he’s certain Michigan workers will get those rights enshrined in state law then. For years, the GOP government has given tax breaks and incentives to corporations and enterprises, he noted. A decent minimum wage and sick leave is “something fundamental” all workers in an industrialized country should have, he said.

A spokesperson for Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer’s transition team told Rewire.News that the Democrat’s team was watching the situation. “The transition team is monitoring all pending legislation during lame duck as part of an overall effort to ensure the Governor-elect is prepared to assume office on January 1. However, the Governor-elect has been clear that the Legislature should respect the voices of voters who have spoken clearly and decisively, and focus on the common-ground issues that will improve the lives of the people of Michigan.”

Outgoing Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, who was part of the negotiations in making the latest changes, is expected to sign off on them although he has not publicly said so.

Pete Vargas, campaign manager for Michigan One Fair Wage, was one of many who predicted the GOP intention to take the legislation off the November ballot in an effort to suppress voter turnout and passage, and to gut the laws by passing amendments in the lame duck session.

“Our message to Gov. Snyder is clear: Uphold the constitution and veto Senate Bill 1171. This replacement bill is disgraceful and undermines the will of the more than 400,000 Michigan voters who signed the One Fair Wage proposal in support of raising the minimum wage for all Michigan workers,” he said in an email.

Only one Republican voted against the bill in the 26-to-12-state senate vote; three Republicans opposed it in the 60-to-48 house vote. But the GOP margin shifted drastically in the November elections, as Democrats made marked gains. Twenty-nine of the 39 senators who voted for the legislation will not be returning, Ananich said.

Republican lawmakers are also rushing to make other modifications during the lame-duck session—from trying to dilute the powers of incoming Democrats elected to statewide office to changing how public education is overseen statewide.

Paid sick time laws are a reality in ten states and 35 localities and have been beneficial for workers and for public health. It is something Michigan workers deserve and one they would have voted for if the opportunity hadn’t been stolen from them by the Michigan legislature, said Sherry Leiwant, co-founder of A Better Balance, a national legal nonprofit that supported the local initiatives.

“Shame on the Michigan legislature for playing politics with their constituents’ health and rights,” she said. “Back in September, it purposefully passed a paid sick time law to keep it off the ballot, and now, after the election, it is seeking to replace that law with one that will deny most Michigan workers the opportunity to take paid sick time when they need it to care for themselves and their families.”