In 2018, the Republican-led lame duck legislature prevented minimum wage and sick time laws from getting on Michiganders' ballots by adopting the proposals and then gutting them. Now, a new lawsuit is asking a court to overturn then-Attorney General Bill Schuette's opinion that the move was legal, and implement the original proposals.
The original proposals would raise the minimum wage in Michigan to $12 an hour by 2022 and increase wages for tipped workers, as well as allow employees to accrue up to 72 hours of paid sick leave. The petitions for the bills received hundreds of thousands of signatures.
The bills were adopted by the legislature in September 2018 to prevent them from appearing on the ballot in the November election. The amendments made by the lame duck legislature in December change the laws so that the minimum wage will be $12.05 by 2030, and prevented tipped workers' wages from coming in line with non-tipped workers. They also exempted businesses with under 50 workers from providing paid sick days, and capped the number of paid sick leave hours at 40. The "adopt and amend" strategy used by state Republicans was unprecedented and controversial at the time.
Mark Brewer is the attorney for the plaintiffs, who include Michigan Time to Care and One Fair Wage Michigan. He says he cannot predict how Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat, will respond.
"My clients have repeatedly asked the attorney general to rescind the Schuette opinion or to supersede it, and therefore allow the original proposals to take effect and she has repeatedly refused, leaving my clients no choice but to file this lawsuit," Brewer said.
He's referring to an opinion written by then-Attorney General Bill Schuette, a Republican, where he says it was legal for the legislature to use the adopt and amend strategy.
Sarah Coffey is an organizer with Michigan Time to Care. She says the legislature's actions three years ago caused Michigan workers to lose wages.
"That means less money for food, for their kids and families, all in the middle of a pandemic. This lawsuit is being filed because we believe the legislature acted outside its authority when it gutted these laws and lowered wages for Michigan workers," Coffey said. "Restaurant owners are getting $28.6 billion in assistance from the federal government to take the next step in recovering from the pandemic, and it's time for workers to take the next step too."
Those workers include Tia Marie Sanders, one of the named plaintiffs who got COVID-19 last winter. She says she accutely felt the effects of the lack of protections for workers.
"There was no structure for the time off that was necessary, there was no structure for my low wages so those lost wages put me at risk. I continued to work until I could physically work no more. I couldn't breathe, couldn't stand, and was extremely fatigued. Within a few weeks, I was hospitalized and that was for several weeks. After that, I returned back to work as often as I possibly could, trying to work in a pandemic," said Sanders.
Aisha Wells is with Mothering Justice, which worked with Michigan Time to Care on the proposals. She says the COVID-19 pandemic underscored the need for provisions in the original proposals, like paid sick time.
"Right now, the people less likely to be able to earn paid sick days are the same people on the front lines of this pandemic. Those who serve us food, stock our shelves, clean our public spaces, and the people who care for us. Without paid sick days, people will choose to go to work rather than lose pay," Wells said. "A lot of people have said over the last year that we could not have predicted the cost of the pandemic. But our campaign knew before the pandemic that sick time is an issue that affects us all. We did something about that three years ago, and hundreds of thousands of Michigan citizens signed that petition, and got our proposal in front of the legislature, and it passed."
Sanders says the legislature's actions were like a slap in the face to workers.
"They told us that to them, the lobbyists and the big businesses get more say in how our government works than we do. They told us that our illnesses don't matter, our sick children don't matter, and we should just get over it when we get sick, and they did so just before the pandemic would grip the world."
The AG's office declined to comment on the lawsuit.