Hints of Future Wisconsin Employment Laws?

By February 10, 2015 News

On occasion, hints of the potential future of Wisconsin’s employment laws can be seen in legislation that is proposed in Madison.  Several such hints appear in a new Wisconsin Senate Bill that was introduced on January 16 by a set of Wisconsin Senate Democrats.  The bill, 2015 Senate Bill 5, proposes both changes to Wisconsin’s existing wage claim statute (Chapter 109 of the Wisconsin statutes) and new employer requirements regarding the provision of “disclosure statements” to employees.  Following is a summary of the bill’s more significant proposed revisions to Wisconsin’s wage claim statute:

  1. The bill, if passed into law, would allow an employee to file a wage claim with the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development (DWD) or to start a wage claim in Wisconsin circuit court on behalf of, not only himself or herself, but other similarly situated employees who consent in writing to be parties to such a claim.  This proposal would effectively memorialize the concept of collective or class action wage claims in Wisconsin’s wage claim statute.
  2. Currently, the statute of limitations for Wisconsin wage claims is two years, consistent with the basic two-year federal statute of limitations for wage and hour claims.  If it became law, 2015 Senate Bill 5 would increase the statute of limitations for wage claims to four years.
  3. The bill would double the statutory penalties that can be awarded by a Wisconsin circuit court against an employer.

In addition to these proposals regarding amendments to the Wisconsin wage claim statute, the bill also would create a new requirement for Wisconsin employers to provide employees with “disclosure statements,” an entirely new employer mandate.  Key components of this new requirement would include:

  1. A requirement that employers provide employees with a written statement disclosing the terms of their employment at hire, on January 1 of each calendar year, and not less than seven days before the effective date of any change in the terms of employment.
  2. The disclosure statement would have to be in English and, if the employee has limited English proficiency, in the employee’s native language.
  3. The disclosure statement would have to include: (a) the full name, mailing address and telephone number of the employer; (b) the remuneration to be paid to the employee, the frequency of payment of that remuneration, and, if paid as an hourly wage, the hourly basic rate of pay to be paid to the employee; (c) the circumstances under which the employee would be paid at a rate that is higher than the hourly basic rate of pay for working in excess of an established number of hours per day, week or month or for working on designated nights, weekends or holidays; and (d) a description of any other economic benefits that the employer would be providing (for example, health insurance, paid sick leave, vacation pay, holiday pay, pension or other retirement benefits and the like).
  4. Failure to provide the mandated disclosure statement or to comply with its terms would subject the employer to: (a) actual damages sustained by the employee as a result of the failure; (b) the greater of liquidated damages of not more than $50 per working day of violation or the increased wages payable under the bill; and (c) reasonable costs and attorneys’ fees.

These onerous disclosure-statement requirements would have a significant impact on the paperwork necessary for employers to hire and maintain the employment of employees (and, in doing so, would likely decrease hiring) and would likely cause employers not to change employee wages or benefits as frequently (to the detriment of employees).  In addition, the requirements are in large part a trap even for employers who make a good faith attempt to comply with the disclosures that must be made.

The bill has been referred to the Senate Committee on Labor and Government Reform.  Given the current Republican control of the Wisconsin Senate, it is unlikely to come back out of this committee let alone win votes in the state Senate or Assembly.  Given its onerous effects on Wisconsin employers, it is also likely that Governor Walker would veto the bill were it to make it to his desk.

Though it has an extremely slim chance of passage in the current Wisconsin legislature, this legislation gives Wisconsin employers a hint at the types of proposals that could become law when the current makeup of the Wisconsin legislature and governor’s office change.  Wisconsin employers should remain vigilant to and make themselves educated regarding these types of legislative proposals.