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Indiana Legislature

November 27, 2011

MAUREEN HAYDEN: Contentious ‘right to work’ issue about to take center stage again

INDIANAPOLIS — It’s hard to think of anything that will take up more oxygen in the next legislative session than the contentious “right to work” bill.

The Indiana General Assembly doesn’t go back into session until Jan. 4, but already there’s been enough verbally charged wind emitted on the proposed legislation to fill a hot air balloon and keep it aloft till well after the holidays.

The bill, dubbed “right to work for less” by its detractors, would prohibit agreements between unions and employers that require all workers to pay union or representation fees.

There’s been much dispute over whether such a bill would lure sustainable jobs to the state, but no dispute over the politics of it.

Just three days before Hoosiers sat down for their Thanksgiving meal, GOP legislative leaders — whose party controls the Statehouse — gave their Democratic counterparts a reason to stand up and fight when they said the bill would be the Republicans’ top legislative priority.

So it’s serious stuff — it’s the bill that sent House Democrats walking out in the last session — but it’s not the only proposed piece of legislation worthy of ink.

What’s more interesting to me is a proposal floated by a couple of pro-labor Democrats and backed, at least in concept, by the pro-business Indiana Chamber of Commerce.

Their idea is for Indiana to adopt a law that would make unemployment benefits more flexible and give companies some additional options for cutting back on employee hours.

Known as the “work-share” program, it’s already been implemented in 21 states. State Reps. Mary Ann Sullivan and Ed DeLaney, both of Indianapolis, have been making the case to their colleagues that it could work in Indiana, too.

In essence, a work-share program allows employers to avoid laying off workers by reducing their hours; those employees are then eligible to receive a share of unemployment benefits proportionate to the reduction in hours.

So instead of a company laying off one worker and eliminating that 40-hour-a-week job, the company could cut 10 hours a week from four employees. Those four employees could each collect a small share of unemployment benefits. Workers get to keep their jobs and employers benefit too: If and when their business gets better, those employers increase the workload of their existing workers and avoid the costly process of recruiting, screening and hiring new workers.

Some legislators have already put up some opposition. Among the arguments against it: Employers use lay-offs to get rid of their least productive workers, so cutting back a few hours for multiple workers is an unfair distribution of pain.

There are also concerns about how to craft such a program so employers don’t abuse it, and questions about how cutting back hours would impact the benefits that often accompany a full-time job.

So the work-share bill has a long way to go before it’s fully evolved.

But Sullivan and DeLaney are hoping their colleagues will give it a chance to evolve into some workable legislation. As DeLaney told a legislative study committee considering the matter last month, this is “a small but useful idea” in an economy that still feels wobbly to most of us.

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