Biz community decries bill to “kill” independent contracting

Biz community decries bill to “kill” independent contracting
Photo: Tomas Castelazo

A diverse coalition of Washington business community members are up in arms over a legislative proposal that critics say would essentially wipe out independent contracting in Washington state – and along with it the jobs it provides.

While a Jan. 28 public hearing for the Senate bill attracted a long line of cosmetologists voicing their opposition, the House companion legislation also garnered significant testimony during its public hearing that same day from major business groups as well as independent contractors.

Since then, the bill has been scheduled for executive action by the House Committee on Labor & Workplace Standards three times, but no vote has been taken. Following its public hearing, no action has been scheduled for companion bill SB 5513, sponsored by President Pro Tempore Karen Kesier (D-33), who has said the bill will not be moving forward.

However, opponents are still sounding the alarm. The Washington Trucking Associations wrote in a Feb. 8 tweet that they “are not just costly proposals; they are small business killers, and that is the goal.

“Not only more expensive, it is anti-small business and makes it impossible to work as an owner-operator, independent contractor in the trucking industry in Washington,” WTA wrote in another tweet. Also opposed to the bill are the Washington Retail Association, Washington Forest Protection Association, the Washington Hospital Association and Washington Realtors.

Sponsored by Majority Whip Rep. Marcus Riccelli (D-3), HB 1515 seeks to clarify whether a person is classified as an independent contractor or W-2 employee eligible for benefits such as workers compensation. Proponents say that employers can often misclassify workers to avoid offering these benefits. Currently, the state uses a six-part test to determine which category a worker falls under.

“This bill is about ensuring those who are classified as independent contractors are truly independent businesses who enjoy all the rights and responsibilities of their businesses,” Washington State Labor Council Government Affairs Director Joe Kendo told committee members.

However, as written the bill “is kind of like creating an a-bomb to hunt for rabbits,” according to Bob Battles. He is the Association of Washington Business’ director of government affairs on employment law. Battles told the committee that the legislature should at least wait until a state Department of Commerce advisory committee completes its study on independent contracting before taking any action.

However, he added that “if you’re looking for an easier way of doing independent contracting in the state of Washington, this doesn’t do it, because it eliminates independent contractors in the state of Washington, essentially.”

Reinforcing that view were numerous cosmetologists, including Moses Lake salon owner Heather Kerekffy, who told legislators that the bill’s definition of independent contractor would not include workers who merely rent booths from her. “I would have to close my salon or put those ladies out on the street. That is not fair.”

Also impacted would be independent contractors in the ridesharing industry such as rideshare drivers. Drive Forward Executive Director Matthew Wald warned that reclassifying them as employees would “absolutely destroy our industry” and “threatens our livelihoods.”

Everett rideshare driver James Lockhart told lawmakers that “it’s because of the independence I have now (as a contractor) that I don’t have listen to anybody else. I enjoy my freedom. I enjoy the ability do what I want to do when I want to do it. I hear all these people making decisions about my life, but no one’s ever come to me and asked me what do I think about it?”

While discussions over how to better distinguish contractors from employees may eventually lead to revisions in state law, Battles didn’t mince words regarding whether or not HB 1515 is the solution. “We do not believe you can fix this bill. What you’ve got here is almost worse than a Rube Goldberg (machine).”

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