Colorado Democrats square off over restaurants in worker-scheduling bill

Faced with a wall of opposition from restaurants and industry groups, Colorado lawmakers are set for a tight, potentially fatal vote Thursday on a bill that would require certain large employers give their workers advanced notice of their work schedules.

The measure — HB23-1118 — has been a priority target for prominent business groups, like the Colorado Restaurant Association and the state’s chamber of commerce, since it was first rolled out in January. An initial hearing of the bill last month stretched for hours as workers, restaurant owners and the organizations representing them took turns blasting and praising the policy. That meeting, before the House’s Business Affairs and Labor committee, ended without a vote, as the bill’s Democratic sponsors asked that it be pulled back for more work, a warning sign that the measure didn’t have needed support.

If passed, the bill would require restaurants, retail outlets and food processing employers with more than 250 workers to post their schedules two weeks in advance. Certain, sudden changes to those schedules would require employers pay affected staff “predictability pay,” and the bill would also protect a broader swath of Colorado workers from retaliation for requesting scheduling accommodations. While some cities have instituted similar “fair workweek” policies, only Oregon has enacted it on a statewide basis.

Sponsors and supporters have cast the bill as an attempt to give workers more control and predictability over their lives, and to inject some parity between employee and employer when it comes to scheduling. They point to a recent Harvard-backed study that showed the ever-shifting schedules of Colorado service workers. But business groups — particularly restaurants — have castigated the bill as overly burdensome, costly to implement and counterproductive to the fluid schedules inherent to the covered industries.

The sticking point, at least for key members of the committee that will decide the bill’s fate Thursday, are those restaurants: Owners have come out in force against the bill, and skeptical Democrats who could sink the measure have worried about any obstacles thrown in front of an industry still recovering from the pandemic.

Rep. Judy Amabile, a Boulder Democrat and the chair of the business committee, said she was a firm no vote and called the bill “the wrong policy at the wrong time for the wrong group.” Rep. William Lindstedt, another skeptical Dem, said he’d “feel a whole lot better” if restaurants weren’t included.

But the sponsors — Denver Democratic Reps. Emily Sirota and Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez — said they had committed to keeping protections for restaurant workers in the bill, a position backed by the labor and progressive organizations supporting them. They cast restaurant staff as among the most vulnerable workers in the state. While Amabile noted the wave of concerned restaurant owners who testified against the bill last month, Sirota and Gonzales-Gutierrez said workers fear retaliation for speaking in support of a contentious piece of legislation.

At one point during that hearing, a worker criticized a previous speaker’s description of some supporters of the bill as “squeaky wheels.” The man who made that comment then stood up in the audience to respond, prompting Amabile to order him to leave.

Sirota said that moment was instructive.

“I think that really put a spotlight on the vulnerability of this workforce — largely unorganized labor — and I see it as my job as a representative to make sure I’m there working on behalf of my constituents,” Sirota said. “They don’t have a bunch of well-paid lobbyists to spend all of their time at the Capitol and to see legislators every day and do all that work on behalf of their clients.”

For workers like Liza Nielsen, a supervisor at a Starbucks in Superior, the bill is necessary to force big corporations to comply with federal labor law: Nielsen said Starbucks has refused to bargain with its burgeoning nationwide union for the past year and a half.

“In the broader scope of things, I just think it’s really important to give workers anti-retaliation protections when trying to secure wages and benefits from giant corporations that don’t necessarily have those interests in mind all the time,” Nielsen said.

Like Lindstedt and Amabile, restaurant owners and managers told the Denver Post that the measure was well-intended but fell short in practice. The bill requires three years of record-keeping for shift change requests, which Emily Storie, a senior assistant general manager at Snooze’s Westminster location, said was burdensome.

“There’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to do right by restaurant workers, but I just don’t believe this bill is the answer to do that,” she said. “It will add so much oversight, rules and restrictions to managers that are already stretched so thin, and it will take away time from managers to invest in their team members.”

Sirota and Gonzales-Gutierrez have said workers would still be able to swap shifts and maintain flexibility that some staff want; the intent with the predictability pay, they said, is to compensate employees whose shifts change for things like hastily arranged or canceled child care. But restaurant owners say the bill would stifle the flexibility inherent — and, for some workers, welcomed — in the industry. The restaurant association released a letter Monday signed by more than 640 food-service workers who oppose the bill.

“I have never once posted a schedule and had people work exactly as scheduled,” said Kristie Mansur, the director of operations at Ted’s Montana Grill in Larimer Square said. “ … Right now, managers are able to help their team members get accommodated and cover a shift. With the restrictions from the bill, if I help them get the shift covered, I’m then penalized and having to pay extra pay, so it really takes away the compassion we really pride ourselves on.”

Democrats hold a 7-4 majority on the business committee. But concerns around restaurants have slackened any partisan cushion, and supporters are already bracing for the bill to be voted down. Rep. Javier Mabrey, a Denver Democrat and supporter of the bill, said he “didn’t have high hopes” for its passage. Lindstedt, who declined to say how he’d vote, said he wanted to see if Gonzales-Gutierrez and Sirota bring any amendments to change the bill and assuage his concerns.

That appears unlikely. Gonzales-Gutierrez said Wednesday that she may hold off on bringing any amendments so that it can be brought back fresh next year. The coalition backing the bill is looking long-term, too.

“As we’re stepping into this vote, we know that things are looking not as ideal for our folks, but we know that this is an issue that will continue to impact workers regardless of whether it comes out of committee on Thursday,” said Pamela Resendiz, the executive director of Colorado Jobs with Justice. “We are committed as an organization, as a coalition, to keep working on this, to ensure that workers who would like to see this are able to see it at some point.”

If the bill does fail, it will show that — despite predictions of a runaway Democrat House — there remain policy disagreements within the party’s historic majorities. Gonzales-Gutierrez said the vote was a “first test” to Democratic lawmakers’ position when it comes to the intersection of business and labor.

“I stand firm in my values when it comes to workers’ rights and when it comes to those that maybe aren’t the loudest voices in the room still having an opportunity and having someone that has their back,” she said. “And I don’t know that everyone in this chamber feels the same way. That’s what we’ll see play out on Thursday: those that are willing to stand up and fight for workers, and those that maybe have other interests in mind.”

Amabile said it was more a question of policy than true progressive bona fides.

“I was sent here by my constituents to use my skill and brain … to do what I think is best,” she said. “I’m pretty freaking progressive, actually. I just don’t think it’s a good bill.”

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