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Another bill to strip Kentucky worker protections advances in legislature

Rep. Phillip Pratt, a Republican from Georgetown, presents a bill to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Legislative Research Commission
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LPM
Rep. Phillip Pratt, a Republican from Georgetown, presents a bill to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Employers wouldn’t have to provide meal or rest breaks, pay employees for travel time or provide seventh day overtime under a bill that passed a House committee Wednesday.

Several pieces of legislation to erode worker’s protections in Kentucky have begun moving through the legislative process this year, including a bill to allow teenagers to work longer and later hours.

Another measure in that surge of legislation cleared a committee vote Wednesday. House Bill 500 would strip Kentucky’s meal and rest break protections as well as seventh-day overtime.

Both bills would weaken Kentucky labor laws, stripping them down to the minimum requirements of federal law. They also share a sponsor, Republican Rep. Phillip Pratt from Georgetown.

Pratt is the owner of a landscaping company that could potentially stand to benefit from both measures, and is not seeking reelection. He also chairs the committee that heard HB 500 Wednesday.

“I've often said, despite the best efforts of local, state and federal government, I've managed to succeed and keep my doors open,” Pratt said at the outset of the committee hearing.

Pratt’s landscaping business received nearly $300,000 in forgiven federal PPP loans during the pandemic. He said HB 500 would bring Kentucky in line with the Federal Labor Standards Act, a law passed 85 years ago.

“We create confusion for employers in Kentucky who must ensure compliance with [Kentucky Revised Statutes] as well as the [Fair Labor Standards Act]. The dual compliance challenge for employers is specifically difficult for those businesses that employ workers in multiple states,” Pratt said.

The state worker protections Pratt's bill would strip have been in place for decades. The Kentucky Center for Economic Policy and union leaders oppose the legislation, saying it would only hurt workers in the state.

“These laws have been in place since 1958, 1974 and 1942, respectively. Why the sudden urgency to repeal laws that are in place to protect Kentucky's workers?” said Gerald Adkins, a lobbyist with the Kentucky State AFL-CIO.

Some lawmakers are concerned with the provisions in the bill that would exempt employers from minimum wage requirements during travel time to the “principal activity” of the job and activities that occur prior to or after the main purposes of the job — although the bill does not specify what activities that might include.

Democratic Rep. Nima Kulkarni from Louisville said she believes the provision could hurt people who have to don protective gear for their jobs, like police or some factory workers, or those whose job requires significant travel time, like HVAC repairman or first responders.

“My concern is that nurses, first responders, emergency responders are some of the most necessary and crucial workers. We've been talking about workforce shortages for years. It is unclear to me why we would take away protections,” Kulkarni said.

Pratt said that is not his intention and that once the person steps into their workplace, “the clock starts.” However, that wording does not appear to be included in the bill.

The bill passed its committee vote with the four Democrats on the committee voting “no” and several Republicans expressing reservations. GOP Rep. Ryan Dotson from Winchester voted in favor of the bill, but said there were some things he thought needed to be fixed.

“I do see some unintended consequences after meeting with stakeholders,” Doston said. “But I will vote ‘yes’ today to get it out of committee and let's work on it to make it a better bill.”

Another contentious element of the bill is the provision that makes providing lunch optional in the state. Pratt said his bill would actually be good for workers because it specifically clarifies that employers would not be allowed to require employees work during their unpaid lunch breaks, assuming the employer chooses to provide one.

While state law doesn’t include such requirements, federal law already does, so employers cannot legally require employees work during unpaid lunch breaks. Pratt’s bill would allow employers to dock pay if workers eat during their shift outside of a provided unpaid meal period.

“In today's work environment, to say someone's not going to offer you a lunch break is ludicrous,” Pratt said. “Trust me, you're going to offer lunch breaks, you're going to offer breaks, you're gonna do all that.”

Pratt would not clarify why then his bill would remove state requirements to provide said breaks. He also said several businesses who wished to stay anonymous supported the bill and said they had been fined for violating the state’s requirements because they were looking solely to federal standards.

Duane Hammons, the director of the Division of Wage and Hours for the Department of Workplace Standards in the Kentucky Education and Labor Cabinet, spoke in opposition to the bill which he said could “have detrimental effects on employees across the state.”

“These decade-long standards we have are in place for the safety, mental and physical health of all Kentucky workers,” Hammons said.

State government and politics reporting is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Sylvia is the Capitol reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Richmond, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email her at sgoodman@lpm.org.