Is a mandatory government certification for workers a good idea?

The promise of paid sick leave and workers’ compensation are all well and good. But should companies and government officials in the District have to declare themselves “qualified” in order to provide that legal minimum standard?

Thursday’s Maryland State Senate panel hearing on mandatory certification measures for state and local government organizations elicited hoots and hollers from the audience. Government officials and business groups alike, when asked, would not share their opinions on the requirement, which is one of many contained in a bill to repeal a controversial law that limits union dues to the first $10,000 in union fees — more than triple the current cap.

According to testimony before the panel, at least 22 states have a similar requirement for government employers. Among the less controversial requirements is that employees who worked at the protected location for at least five hours qualify as “non-exempt,” meaning they must receive compensated sick days, and workers’ compensation recipients can also be required to prove they have benefits.

The issue of mandatory certification can be a minefield for employers, according to a recently released report from a national non-profit business-advocacy group.

“Many new employers who don’t qualify will have a much more challenging time recruiting and retaining a workforce and increasing their total sales,” said the Council of Smaller Enterprises, a nonprofit based in Virginia that is comprised of small and mid-sized businesses, in a statement on its report. The CSE argues that the mandate increases compliance costs and creates an administrative burden on local governments.

The city council is expected to vote on the proposal in September. The bill is presented as the wave of the future for local government employee employee benefits, according to its sponsor Councilmember Brandon Scott, who believes providing paid sick leave and workers’ compensation are state and local government “expenditures” that shouldn’t be funded through collective bargaining, but should be funded by tax dollars.

“We just want to be clear that we’re raising the bar and giving public entities the ability to put a notional value on what we do,” said Councilmember Scott. “We’re not being facetious, if somebody tells me you should just pay me for the time I’m here, I’ll give you an $80 day.”

The bill is vague on the required number of hours of service a worker must be on-call to qualify as a “non-exempt” worker. It would only apply to city and government organizations, meaning the DC Council would not set the bar for private businesses or businesses in the state. It would also exempt the DC mayor, DC government officials, and the director of the Office of Human Rights from the requirement.

While the council could change the bill in an effort to soften the impact of the certification requirement, on Thursday there was little discussion on how far the language would go.

Several Councilmembers said the debate was taking too long. According to Councilmember Scott, the first hearing on the bill was held in late June, and the council expects to vote on the measure in September. Councilmember Marsha Blackburn, the chair of the council’s Small Business & Consumer Protection Committee, said in a statement last week that the council will work to reduce the “time-consuming administrative burden on government entities, rather than adding to it.”

While some who attend the state senate hearing on Thursday shared thoughts on the proposed legislation, others had none. Grover Norquist, the president of the anti-tax lobby Americans for Tax Reform, said the certification requirement would be “an offense” to anyone who has to pay union dues — including young people without permanent homes.

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