Arizona Labor Activists Preserve Local Control

AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

Boxes of signatures gathered in Arizona Healthy Working Families Initiative's successful campaign to raise the state's minimum wage in 2016. That measure also reaffirmed that local governments may enact higher wage rates and other types of employment benefits in their communities.

Labor activists in Arizona fought to uphold the law, and this time, the law won. In some areas of the country, conservative state legislators are trying to pre-empt municipal labor regulations on issues like paid sick days. Arizona legislators passed a measure last year, HB 2579, that bans towns, cities, and counties from requiring employers to provide “additional employee benefits.” Conservative Republicans, who constitute a majority in both chambers of the Arizona legislature, trampled on their own state constitution and a 2006 law passed by voter initiative that allows local governments to pass higher minimum wage rates and other types of employment benefits than the state guarantees. Fortunately, 32 state legislators and city council members from three cities joined the United Food and Commercial Workers to stand up for working families. They asked a Superior Court judge to strike down the preemption law—and on September 8, the judge did just that.

A home-rule provision in the Arizona state constitution permits 19 cities to enact local laws free from state interference. The provision undergirds a basic tenet of American democracy: Local voters should decide what laws and regulations best promote the health, safety, and general welfare in their communities.

When state lawmakers passed HB 2579, they also ignored Proposition 202, the Arizona Minimum Wage Act, a citizen ballot initiative. That measure not only raised the state’s minimum wage but reaffirmed that local governments may enact higher wage rates and other types of employment benefits in their communities. Finally, conservative lawmakers tried to ignore the state’s Voter Protection Act. In order to overturn a measure passed by voter initiative, the Voter Protection Act requires three-quarters of lawmakers in each chamber to vote yes, and the bill passed must "further the purposes" of the original bill rather than undermine it. HB 2579 failed to obtain the required three-quarters majority either chamber.

City councilors from Tucson, Flagstaff, and Tempe—along with 22 state representatives, 10 state senators, and the United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 99— filed a lawsuit in Maricopa County Superior Court challenging the constitutionality of HB 2579. “I like taking on bullies,” said Jim Barton, a partner at Torres Law Group, the firm that represented the plaintiffs.

One of the plaintiffs is Lauren Kuby, who serves on the Tempe City Council. She had already helped lead a campaign to bring paid sick days to Tempe when the legislature intervened. Kuby explained her views in an Arizona Central op-ed: “As Arizonans, we are entrusted to make thoughtful policy choices that best represent the values and ideals of our residents. It is why we, as public servants, cannot abide this threat to local decision making and are taking our concerns to the courts.” Kuby also pointed out that Proposition 202 “made clear the will of the voters: How you treat workers is a matter of local concern and should reflect local values.”

Last week, Superior Court Judge Joshua Rogers upheld this concept of local control. He ruled that the law passed by the legislature and signed by Gov. Doug Ducey violated the Voter Protection Act. Corporate special interest like the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Arizona Restaurant Association who backed the lawmakers and the governor argued that Proposition 202 might protect decisions on wages but not “benefits.”

But the judge declared that,

the State ignores the obvious and naturally understood similarity between the ordinary meaning of “wages” and “benefits,” as well as the obvious and natural meaning seen within the broader context of a labor statute such as this, and instead assigns “benefits” an unnatural meaning … that effectively turns the canon on its head and defies common sense.

Translation: Benefits are a part of an employee’s compensation package: In the case of paid sick days, they are not “extras.” Having paid sick leave means that your employer can’t dock your pay or fire you for following your doctor’s orders.

Arizona voters did not need to hear anything more from the state legislators. They had already decided how the state should handle paid sick days. Last November, nearly 60 percent of voters approved an earned sick day standard for the entire state, up to five days for people who work for businesses with 15 or more employees, up to three days for workers in smaller ones. “We believe that workers should not have to choose between a paycheck and their health or their family’s health,” Kuby said. “Mothers should feel secure staying home and caring for a sick child or parent without worrying about losing their job or sacrificing their rent: That is how we build economic security and resilience for our communities, our cities and, ultimately, our state.”

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