Proposed legislation that would create a state department of labor with particularly ambiguous wording that would give carte blanche to the governor-appointed staff has raised concerns in the business community.
Senate Bill 2668, which would create a new government regulator, the Mississippi Department of Labor-Management Relations, breezed through Senate hearings last week as committee members voted to send it to appropriations. The new department would be fully functional by July 1, 2001.
Proponents of the bill say Mississippi is the only state without a labor department and that the consolidation of numerous functions from other areas of state government under a single agency would be cost-efficient and could result in increased federal funding for workforce training dollars. Gov. Ronnie Musgrove has been quoted as saying that, because Mississippi does not have a labor department, more than $50 million in federal funds for programs to help people move from school to work had to be returned in the last several years, under Gov. Kirk Fordice’s administration.
Hogwash, say opponents.
Mississippi returned the Welfare to Work money because Fordice and the head of the Department of Health and Human Services determined that TANF funding was sufficient for what needed to be done in this state, according to a memorandum.
“The Welfare to Work funding would have flowed through the JTPA or ES funding system,” the memo read. “It would not have required any additional infrastructure. The money was not lost because we did not have a system in place, it was basically turned back for lack of interest.”
At the AFL-CIO’s annual state convention earlier this month, Gov. Ronnie Musgrove reiterated his support for the creation of the new agency to 200 or so attendees.
“Parts of the bill do have merit, such as combining the training functions,” said Thomas E. Lord, executive director of the Mississippi Employment Security Commission, who added that the commission would change from a service agency to a regulatory one. “Training programs are already in place, scattered among different agencies and need some consolidating. We’ve been working on various committees, trying to do just that.”
Adding another department will create a layer of unnecessary bureaucracy with regulatory burdens at a cost to state taxpayers, said Blake Wilson, president of the Mississippi Economic Council.
“There’s a big misunderstanding about this department of labor thing,” he said. “A department of labor for Mississippi would just create an absolute rash of red tape. One bill is acting like it tries to streamline, when all it is, in fact, is another level of bureaucracy. A second bill that has been introduced would actually create a whole election process for commissioners. It’s certainly not the kind of forward-thinking legislation we’ve seen in other states. Now, if the stated interest is to truly find an answer to making sure we get workforce dollars, this is not the way to go about it.”
John Baas, director of industrial relations for the Mississippi Manufacturers Association, a 1,700-member organization, said Senate Bill 2668, authored by Sen. Robert Johnson (D-Natchez), was described as a means of consolidating workforce training dollars and giving employees one place to go to file a complaint.
“This could be done in a lot simpler way than forming a department of labor,” he said. “For example, legislation that passed last year consolidated workforce training.”
Under the SB2668 proposal, all workforce training dollars that are funneled through various departments — the Mississippi Employment Security Commission, Mississippi Department of Health and Human Services, Mississippi Department of Economic and Community Development, the state education department and community colleges — would fall under the labor department.
An umbrella agency would be formed, with a governor-appointed director and five appointed commission members that could promulgate their own rules and regulations over five agencies: employment security, workplace safety and health, job development and training, employee relations and job discrimination and disabled employee assistance, said Baas.
“If that’s not forming another layer of bureaucracy and legislation, I don’t know what is,” Baas said. “The perception is that a department of labor is needed to protect workers from businessmen. MMA has a very active membership doing whatever is possible to attract, train and keep employees.”
SB2668 outlines an office of job safety and health that would provide on-site training and consulting.
“We already have a very successful program with federal OSHA and the center for safety and health through Mississippi State University,” Baas said.
Another concern among opponents of the bill is the inequity concerning child labor, which affects workers younger than 18 years of age, Baas said.
“According to the bill, the office of workplace safety will have the responsibility to visit, without notice, manufacturing facilities employing child labor at least twice a year,” he said. “That doesn’t concern us, except that other businesses, such as fast food restaurants and other places more likely to employ young people, are not mentioned. This discourages programs like youth apprenticeships and work-based learning.”
Two weeks ago, House Bill 980, introduced by Rep. Jim Evans (D-Jackson) with 18 additional authors, incorporates the workers’ compensation commission in the proposed new agency. Senate Bill 2935, introduced Feb. 21 — the last day for new bills — by Sen. Alice Harden (D-Jackson), would establish and create an elected position of Commissioner of Labor.
Tommy Fulton of U.S. Electric Motors from Philadelphia and chairman of MMA’s employer relations committee, testified at last week’s senate committee hearing on SB 2668, along with Wilson and Baas.
“U.S. Electric Motors is a division of Emerson Electric, which has plants in Mexico, other countries in the Caribbean basin, throughout the U.S. and worldwide,” Baas said. “If a company like Emerson deems that government interference is greater in Mississippi than elsewhere, they won’t blink an eye to move the plant, or part of the plant, elsewhere.”
Baas, who keeps tabs on labor activity, said economic developers always want to know what the “atmosphere” is like in the state.
“The creation of a new agency would be discouraging to companies considering locating here,” he said.
The oft-repeated comment that Mississippi is the only state without a labor department is untrue, said Wilson.
“This is not the only state without a labor department,” he said. “We are in the middle of researching this and we have come up with 38 states that have labor departments, not 49. However, some states have agencies or divisions that are labor-related — or they keep a labor department for a small part of functions, but the workforce stuff is going somewhere else.”
Texas has a workforce commission; Arizona has an industrial division and Nevada has a department of employment training and rehabilitation. In Ohio, it’s called the bureau of employment services while Michigan has a department of consumer and industry services. California has a division of labor standards enforcement.
Mississippi already has an employment security commission, DECD employment training division and workers’ compensation commission in place.
In other southern states, Alabama has a labor department, an economic and community affairs department and an industrial relations department. Arkansas established an employment security departmen
t and a labor department. Kentucky has a Cabinet for Workf
orce Development. Tennessee’s is called the Department of Employment Security. North Carolina has an employment security commission, department of commerce employment and training div