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Unions, wages and parental leave: New N.C. bills could impact thousands of state employees
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Unions, wages and parental leave: New N.C. bills could impact thousands of state employees

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RALEIGH — Tens of thousands of state employees in the North Carolina legislature could be affected by several bills being considered this legislative session. The proposed legislation ranges from raising pay to making disciplinary records public to providing paid parental leave.

Some bills mirror those filed in previous sessions that were never even heard in committee. Others already have bipartisan support and have a better chance of moving forward.

Here are significant bills that could affect the most state employees:

Senate Bill 412/House Bill 5: $15 Minimum Pay for Non-certified School Employees.

The $15 minimum wage would apply to non-certified school workers including custodians and cafeteria workers. There is another minimum wage bill too, for all workers. Senate Bill 673: Up Minimum Wages would raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, the same amount workers’ rights groups have pushed for via the Fight for $15/Raise the Wage campaigns.

Senate Bill 701: Restore Public Sector Collective Bargaining.

This would simply repeal the 1959 ban on collective bargaining that gives unions negotiating power. Sen. Wiley Nickel, a Cary Democrat, sponsored the same bill in the 2019 session and is sponsoring multiple other labor-related bills filed this session.

“It’s so important for me to keep saying this,” Nickel said in a phone interview with The News & Observer on Thursday. “When you have people form unions for their work, they see better pay and better benefits. It helps on so many levels.”

In 2020, the nationwide union membership rate was 10.8%, which increased one half of one percent over the previous year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. North Carolina has the second-lowest union membership rate in the country, at 3.1%, after South Carolina.

Senate Bill 648: State Employees/Paid Parental Leave.

This paid parental leave bill has bipartisan sponsorship, with co-sponsors Senate Democratic Whip Jay Chaudhuri and Republican Sen. Danny Britt.

Most state agencies started providing paid parental leave in 2019 after an executive order by Gov. Roy Cooper, though not all Council of State-led agencies joined in. One new addition to paid parental leave agencies is the Department of Labor, which added the paid leave after Labor Commissioner Josh Dobson, a Republican and former state House member, took office in January.

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“This will also help the agency with recruitment and retention of qualified employees and will make these positions more marketable to potential applicants,” Dobson said in a statement about the new policy that began Feb. 1.

Senate Bill 127: Repealing Public Employee Payroll Deductions for Payments to Employee Associations.

Ardis Watkins, executive director of the State Employees Association of North Carolina put it plainly: “Well, we don’t like that bill.”

Watkins said state employees have the “right to associate” and said the bill makes no sense from a fiscal standpoint.

“We’re talking to everyone on the Senate side about that bill, because we feel like the right for people to organize ... is something that should be protected.”

Sen. Ralph Hise, a Spruce Pine Republican and one of the Senate’s lead budget writers, is a primary sponsor of the bill.

Senate Bill 355: Government Transparency Act.

This Republican-sponsored bill would make more state employee disciplinary records public. The North Carolina Press Association is pushing for the bill for public records transparency. The State Employees Association of North Carolina opposes the bill, citing due process issues, The N&O previously reported. Versions of the bill in 2011 and 1997 failed.

Sen. Bill Rabon, a Brunswick County Republican and chair of the powerful Senate Rules Committee, is the lead sponsor. He also co-sponsored the 2011 version of the bill.

What’s next

Perhaps the most important piece of legislation that state employees will be watching is the roll out of the state budget later this spring. The budget includes big ticket items like raises, but that’s not the only thing in it.

In the 2019 budget, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services headquarters would have been relocated to Granville County. Employees who worked at the Dorothea Dix site outside downtown Raleigh opposed the move, which had originally been planned for just another location within Raleigh. About 2,000 employees would have been affected. Emails obtained by The N&O from 2019 showed that Granville County leaders were taken by surprise about lawmakers’ plans for the since-canceled move.

When a new budget failed to become law, the N.C. DHHS move never happened, and lawmakers indicated the headquarters move would return to the original plan of elsewhere in Raleigh.

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