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2021 Session Highlights: How States Build a Fairer Economy for Working Families
September 2021

Background

State lawmakers across the country faced pressing and urgent issues when they convened for 2021 legislative sessions. Although the recent rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine drastically reduced deaths and infection rates, inequitable access to vaccines compounded existing barriers to health care and Black, Latinx, and low-income communities have reported lower vaccination rates. At the same time, the pandemic-induced economic recession is also widening the wealth gap between the average worker and the wealthy few, and workers of color and low-wage workers are the majority of essential workers—the heroes that are helping us get through this—yet continue to experience the worst and most extended employment losses.

During the 2021 sessions and bolstered by a $195.3 billion federal relief package to state governments, legislators had a historic opportunity to ensure that everyone, whether Black or white, Asian or Latino, Native or newcomer, can support their families and contribute to their communities. Lawmakers across the country took action to build upon the lifesaving and poverty-reducing provisions of the American Rescue Plan and the measures passed during the 2020 state legislative sessions

The 2021 legislation outlined below highlights how bold and forward-thinking state lawmakers are working to build a fairer economy by tackling long-standing structural inequalities that were magnified by the health and economic crises of the COVID-19 pandemic. The policy areas discussed in this publication are:

  • Paid Family and Medical Leave
  • Paid Sick and Safe Leave
  • Minimum Wage
  • Unemployment Insurance
  • Workers’ Compensation
  • Wage Theft Protections

Please note that this is neither a comprehensive policy list nor necessarily a list of the most progressive solutions on this subject; when moving forward with legislation, we recommend working with local and national advocates to craft the best solution for your state. Please reach out to SiX if you would like help connecting with national experts.

Everyone deserves to be able to take paid time off to care for themselves and their families. Lawmakers in eight states and DC have enacted legislation to establish a paid family and medical leave insurance (FMLI) program, and, most recently, voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure to make Colorado the ninth state to do so. State family and medical leave insurance programs ensure that more working people can take time off from work to recover from a serious illness or care for a loved one or a new child. The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides job-protected, unpaid leave to some workers. But low-wage workers who can least afford to take unpaid leave are also the least likely to have access to paid leave through their employers: 91 percent of workers in the lowest wage quartile have no access to paid family leave, compared to over two-thirds of workers in the highest wage quartile.

During the 2021 legislative session, policymakers considered legislation to level the playing field so that all workers can afford to take time off from work to be with their families. Lawmakers considered bold policy solutions that would allow workers to take more than the 12 weeks guaranteed by the FMLA in some instances, bringing some parts of the country closer to paid family leave requirements in the rest of the world. In early-adopter states, legislators considered proposals to expand access to and eligibility for existing paid family and medical leave insurance programs. 

Parent holds newborn in hospital; photo by christian bowen
(Photo by Christian Bowen/Unsplash)

State Legislators Take Bold Steps on Paid Leave

In Arizona, lawmakers introduced but failed to advance legislation (2021 AZ HB 2858) that would have provided up to 26 weeks of medical leave and up to 24 weeks for parental, caregiving, exigency (family leave related to active duty deployment), and safe leave. The new insurance program, funded by employee and employer contributions, would have adopted a progressive wage replacement structure, which ensures that lower-wage workers receive a larger portion of their wages. The bill would have established enforcement protections, including the right to bring a lawsuit for aggrieved workers.

Under a bill proposed in Pennsylvania (2021 PA SB 580), workers would be able to access up to 20 weeks to welcome a new child into their family or to recover from a serious health condition, while workers who need to care for a family member with a serious health condition would be able to take up to 12 weeks. Workers would receive a portion of their wages replaced through a new employee-funded insurance pool.

North Carolina legislators are considering a bill (2021 NC SB 564/HB 597) that would allow workers to take up to 18 weeks to recover from a serious health condition; 12 weeks to welcome a new child, to care for a family member with a serious health condition, or for exigency leave; and 26 weeks to provide care for a servicemember with a serious injury or illness. Lawmakers in Florida (2021 FL HB 1245/SB 1596), Georgia (2021 GA SB 55), Illinois (2021 IL HB 3433 and 2021 IL HB 2625), Minnesota (2021 MN HF 1200/SF 1205), Nebraska (2021 NE LB 290), New Mexico (2021 NM HB 38), Tennessee (2021 TN SB 672/HB 1295), and Vermont (2021 VT S 65) also considered but did not pass legislation to establish a state insurance fund to provide paid family and medical leave to more workers.

Lawmakers Work to Expand Paid Leave in Pioneering States

Establishing an Inclusive Definition of “Family Member”

Policymakers in Washington approved legislation (2021 WA SB 5097) to expand the definition of “family member” in the state’s existing paid family and medical leave program, which was limited to “a child, grandchild, grandparent, parent, sibling, or spouse of an employee,” to include “any individual who regularly resides in the employee’s home or where the relationship creates an expectation that the employee care for the person, and that individual depends on the employee for care.”

A bill (2021 NY S 2928/A 6098) that has passed both chambers in New York would amend the state’s existing definition of family member for the purposes of caregiving leave to include siblings, defined as “a biological or adopted sibling, a half-sibling or stepsibling.”

In California, legislators introduced a bill (2021 CA AB 1041) that would create a more inclusive definition of family by striking a provision that allows “any other individual related by blood or whose close association with the employee is the equivalent of a family relationship” and replace it with a “designated person,” defined as “a person identified by the employee at the time the employee requests family care and medical leave.”

Increasing Wage Replacement Rates

A bill (2020 CA AB 123) that is awaiting the governor’s signature in California would ensure that more workers, especially lower-wage workers, can afford to take paid leave. The bill would increase the wage replacement rate for workers earning less than 33 percent of the statewide average wage from 70 percent of their wages to 90 percent of their weekly wages based on their highest-earning quarter.

Black mother with baby post partum
Leave for Miscarriages and Stillbirths

New York legislators are considering several bills (2021 NY S 6198/A 6958, 2021 NY A 6865, 2021 NY S 6026, and 2021 NY S 6026) that would ensure that workers can take time off from work or give workers up to four weeks of paid family leave to recover from and mourn the loss of a child when they have experienced a miscarriage or stillbirth. 

A California bill (2021 CA AB 867) would amend existing definitions in the state’s family leave program to provide “leave for a parent who was pregnant with a child, if the child dies unexpectedly during childbirth at 37 weeks or more of pregnancy.”

Paid Leave During a Public Health Emergency

Oregon legislators enacted a bill (2021 OR HB 2474) that expands the state’s paid family leave program to include leave required to provide child care due to the closure of a school or child care provider as a result of a public health emergency. The bill also expands eligibility for paid leave benefits during a public health emergency and provides eligibility to workers who are laid off and rehired within 180 days.

Washington lawmakers enacted a bill (2021 WA HB 1073) to provide “pandemic leave assistance employee grants” for workers, particularly part-time workers, who were unable to meet the hours-based eligibility threshold for the program. The bill also provides grants to small businesses for costs associated with an employee who has or will take leave under the new grant program. The program is funded entirely by federal funds received by the state in the American Rescue Plan and expires on June 30, 2023.

In Massachusetts, a bill (2021 MA H 2017) introduced by lawmakers would expand the state’s existing paid leave program to include medical leave “due to his or her potential exposure to a pathogen for which a public health emergency has been declared by the Federal, State, or local authorities, regardless of whether the covered individual is symptomatic or asymptomatic.” Self-quarantine as advised by a health care provider for one individual would apply to all other members of the same household.

No one should have to choose between their health or the health of their family and a paycheck. The COVID-19 crisis has underscored how worker health and well-being affects us all. In 13 states and DC, workers can earn paid sick time to recover from an illness or to care for a sick family member without worrying about losing their job; 12 states and DC also provide safe leave coverage for workers who need time off to attend to their needs or a family member’s needs if they are a victim of domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking. State legislation to guarantee paid sick and safe days keeps families and workplaces healthy, especially for low-wage workers and workers of color, who are least likely to have access to a single paid sick day at their job

State lawmakers considered legislation during the 2021 session to expand access to paid sick and safe leave for workers on a permanent basis, in addition to a flurry of activity in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. New Mexico became the 14th state to enact a paid sick leave law, while other states created emergency sick leave protections for workers during public health emergencies.

Two middle aged latina women sit laughing on park bench photo by dario valenzuela
(Photo by Dario Valenzuela/Unsplash)

States Continue to Lead the Way in Guaranteeing Paid Sick Leave

New Mexico became the latest state to protect the health of workers when the legislature enacted the Healthy Workplaces Act (2021 NM HB 20), which allows workers to take up to 64 hours of paid sick time each year to care for themselves or a loved one. The bill includes strong protections for broad access to leave for workers who are often excluded, including part-time, seasonal, or temporary workers, in addition to establishing financial and legal penalties for employer violations of the act, including misclassification of workers as independent contractors.

The Virginia legislature enacted a bill (2021 VA HB 2137) to guarantee paid sick leave to home health workers who provide care for patients who are enrolled in Medicaid. Eligible workers can accrue and use up to 40 hours of paid sick leave every year. The original bill, as introduced, would have applied the new protections more broadly to essential workers.

Legislators in Connecticut failed to advance a bill (2021 CT HB 6537) that would have added all private sector workers, including domestic workers, to those eligible for sick leave. Current law only applies to certain service workers at employers with 50 or more employees. The bill also increases the rate of accrual and eliminates the waiting period for use of leave. Finally, the bill expands the definition of “family member,” which is currently limited to children and spouses, to include adult children, siblings, parents, grandparents, grandchildren, and anyone else related by blood or affinity.

Lawmakers in Iowa are considering a bill (2021 IA HF 275) that would provide paid sick and safe time up to 83 hours per calendar year. Under the bill, workers would be allowed to carry over sick and safe time from year to year up to the annual maximum. In addition to sick and safe leave, workers would be entitled to use such leave during public health emergencies when their place of work is closed for caregiving needs resulting from closure of a school or place of care or to provide care for a family member under quarantine orders.

In New Hampshire, lawmakers are considering legislation (2021 NH SB 67/HB 590) to guarantee that workers, including part-time workers, can earn 1 hour of paid sick and safe time off for every 30 hours worked. Under the bill, workers would be able to accrue and use up to 72 hours of sick or safe leave each calendar year. The bill also provides civil penalties for employer violations and a private right of action for workers who are denied sick leave or receive retaliation from employers for using sick leave.

Policymakers in Illinois introduced legislation (2021 IL HB 3898) that would provide at least 40 hours of paid sick and safe leave to full-time and part-time employees, who would accrue 1 hour of leave for every 40 hours worked. A three-part test for independent contractors is also included in the definition of “employee” under the bill to avoid employee misclassification. 

Lawmakers in Mississippi (2021 MS SB 2349/HB 810), Nebraska (2021 NE LB 258), West Virginia (2021 WV HB 3115), and Texas (2021 TX HB 1298 and 2021 TX HB 87) also considered proposals to establish paid sick leave protections for workers.

Girl looking at doctor examining with stethoscope

States Move to Protect Worker Health During Public Health Emergencies

In California, where workers already have access to paid sick days, lawmakers enacted a bill (2021 CA SB 95) to establish up to 80 hours of supplemental paid sick leave for workers who are unable to work or telework due to COVID-19 through September 30, 2021. The new leave protections apply to employers of more than 25 employees, and workers can use the leave for quarantine, to receive and recover from a vaccine, to recover from COVID-19, to care for a family member subject to quarantine or isolation, or to care for a child whose school or place of care is closed due to COVID-19.

The Massachusetts legislature approved a bill (2021 MA H 90) to expand access to emergency paid sick leave. The bill would have guaranteed workers access to 40 hours of emergency sick leave for full-time workers and an equivalent amount for part-time workers. Workers would receive their full pay for leave taken for reasons related to COVID-19, including caring for a family member. The bill established a state fund to reimburse employers not eligible for the federal reimbursement under Families First Coronavirus Response Act. Although the bill was returned with amendments by the governor, lawmakers rejected the amendments and passed another bill (2021 MA H 3702) with the emergency sick leave provisions.

A bill (2021 MD SB 727/HB 1326) that failed to pass in Maryland would have amended the state’s existing sick and safe leave protections to provide public health emergency leave. The bill would have provided 112 hours of leave for full-time workers during a public health emergency and would have expanded eligibility for the state’s permanent paid sick and safe leave law to agricultural workers, temporary staffing or employment agency workers, or on-call workers. Finally, the bill would have amended the existing definitions of “family member” and “spouse.” 

Pennsylvania legislators introduced a bill (2021 PA HB 657) to establish 112 hours of public health emergency leave for full-time workers. Part-time workers would also be eligible for paid sick time equal to the amount of hours worked on average in a 14-day period. The leave would be available to workers for themselves, to provide care for a family member, for instances where their place of business is closed, or to provide child care when a school or place of care has been closed.

Minimum Wage

For too many workers, wages haven’t kept pace with the cost of rent, health care, child care, and other basic household expenses. While the federal minimum wage has remained at $7.25 since 2009 and the federal subminimum wage for tipped workers at $2.13 since 1991, 30 states and DC have approved a higher state minimum wage, in addition to 45 localities that have enacted a minimum wage higher than the state minimum wage. Increasing the minimum wage ensures that workers can support their families while also narrowing the racial and gender wage gap that disproportionately leaves workers of color, especially Black women, in jobs that don’t pay enough to make ends meet.

In 2021, state legislators across the country considered legislation to raise the minimum wage, address the erosion of minimum wage values by requiring automatic adjustments for inflation, eliminate or raise the subminimum wage for some workers, and repeal state preemption laws that prevent local governments from taking action to increase the minimum wage above the state minimum wage.

Tattooed white essential workers in service and delivery industry with face mask during covid pandemic

State Lawmakers Take Action to Raise the Minimum Wage for More Workers

Lawmakers in Delaware enacted a bill (2021 DE SB 15) that would gradually increase the state minimum wage from $9.25 per hour in 2021 to $15 per hour by 2025.

Rhode Island legislators also enacted a bill (2021 RI SB 1) increasing the state minimum wage gradually from $11.50 to $15 by 2025. 

Arizona lawmakers failed to advance a proposal (2021 AZ SB 1758) that would have increased the state minimum wage for all workers to $20 starting on January 1, 2022, and increased it on an ongoing basis for inflation. The bill would have allowed tipped employees to be paid $3 less per hour than the minimum wage if their employer can prove the tips their employees receive make up the difference. 

In Georgia, lawmakers are considering a minimum wage increase to $15 starting in 2022. A bill (2021 GA HB 116) under consideration in the House incorporates this wage increase but allows employers to count tips toward 50 percent of employees’ minimum wage, and it exempts small employers, students, newspaper carriers, and caretakers. The Senate companion bill (2021 GA SB 24) also establishes a yearly cost-of-living adjustment to the minimum wage starting in 2023.  

A bill (2021 IA HF 122) introduced by Iowa lawmakers would increase the state minimum wage gradually to $15 by July 2025, and to $13.20 for employees employed for less than 90 days by July 2025. The bill also establishes annual cost-of-living increases beginning in July of 2026.

In Minnesota, lawmakers are considering a bill (2021 MN SF 2031) to raise the state minimum wage starting in 2022. Larger employers with more than $500,000 in gross sales must pay employees a minimum wage of $17 per hour, while smaller employers who do not meet this requirement must raise their wages to $15 per hour. After 2022, this minimum wage is adjusted annually, using the cost of inflation. 

Legislators in North Carolina are considering legislation (2021 NC HB 612/SB 673) to increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2023 with a cost-of-living adjustment implemented starting in 2024.

Ohio lawmakers are considering a bill (2021 OH SB 51) that would increase the state minimum wage to $12 by 2022 and provide for gradual increases by $1 annually until the minimum wage reaches $15 in 2025. The state minimum wage is adjusted annually thereafter for inflation.

Oregon lawmakers failed to advance a bill (2021 OR HB 3351) that would have increased the state minimum wage to $17 per hour starting on July 1, 2022. The bill would have also provided an annual cost-of-living adjustment beginning on July 1, 2023.

In Texas, lawmakers failed to advance a bill (2021 TX HB 615) that would have raised the state minimum wage to $11.25 in 2022 and $15 in 2023. Starting in 2024, the minimum wage would increase with a cost-of-living adjustment. The bill also would have established that tipped workers must be paid at least 50 percent of the base minimum wage.

Black chef preparing food for those most in need during the economic crisis
Eliminating Exemptions to Minimum Wage Protections

Minimum wage laws apply to most workers, but employers are allowed to pay less than the federal minimum wage in some instances. Under federal law, employers can pay workers with disabilities and student workers or workers in training a subminimum wage by obtaining a special certificate. For workers who typically receive tips—a racist custom rooted in slavery that continues to harm Black service workers today—employers are only required to pay the federal tipped minimum wage of $2.13. Thirty-four states and DC have increased the minimum wage for tipped workers, while 16 states continue to use the federal tipped minimum wage, which was last updated in 1991. Another direct legacy of slavery, prison labor, allows incarcerated individuals, who are disproportionately Black, to work for little to no wages.

Tipped Workers

Idaho lawmakers failed to advance a bill (2021 ID SB 1028) that would have gradually raised the minimum tipped wage to $7.50 by July 1, 2023.

Lawmakers in Nebraska (2021 NE LB 122), New York (2021 NY A 4547), Rhode Island (2021 RI HB 6012), and Wisconsin (2021 WI AB 278/SB 286) all considered legislation that would gradually raise the tipped minimum wage to align with the state minimum wage for all workers over the course of several years.

Legislators in North Carolina are considering legislation (2021 NC HB 612/SB 673) to repeal sections of existing state law that exempt agricultural and domestic workers from minimum wage and overtime protections. The bill would also increase the tipped minimum wage and gradually phase it out by 2025.

Individuals with Disabilities

Colorado lawmakers enacted a bill (2021 CO SB 21-039) to phase out subminimum wage for workers with disabilities by July 1, 2025, and require each employer to submit a transition plan to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment detailing how the employer plans to comply. 

Lawmakers in Hawaii are considering a bill (2021 HI HB 603) that would repeal the exemption of persons with disabilities from minimum wage requirements.

New York lawmakers are also considering legislation (2021 NY S 1828/A 3103) that would eliminate provisions exempting employees with disabilities from the minimum wage law. 

Employees in Training

The Delaware General Assembly enacted a bill (2021 DE HB 88) to remove the training minimum wage (for employees in their first 90 days on the job) and the youth minimum wage (for employees under the age of 18). 

Idaho lawmakers failed to advance a bill (2021 ID SB 1028) that would have eliminated the training wage of $4.25 for the first 90 days of employment for workers under 20 years old. 

Individuals in Prison

In Arizona, lawmakers failed to advance legislation (2021 AZ SB 1751) that would have raised the minimum wage for individuals in prison from $1.50 to match the federal minimum wage. The bill would have also increased the maximum balance that incarcerated individuals can hold in their spending accounts.

States Consider Rollbacks of Local Minimum Wage Preemptions

In 26 states, state law prohibits local governments from setting a minimum wage that is higher than the state minimum wage. During the 2021 legislative session, lawmakers in Florida (2021 FL SB 304/HB 6031), Georgia (2021 GA HB 499), Idaho (2021 ID S 1028), Indiana (2021 IN SB 334), Missouri (2021 MO HB 409), Oklahoma (2021 OK SB 101), and Texas (2021 TX HB 224/SB 389) introduced but failed to advance legislation that would have repealed the state’s minimum wage preemption law. Pending legislation to roll back minimum wage preemption laws are also pending in Iowa (2021 IA HF 122) and Ohio (2021 OH SB 51).

Unemployment Insurance

Unemployment benefits ensure that workers can pay the bills while they search for work, while also stabilizing communities during economic downturns. During the unprecedented job losses of the COVID-19 recession, lawmakers sent unemployment benefits, billions of dollars in lifesaving aid, to families across the country. State laws and regulations vary significantly across the country, leaving many jobless workers ineligible for benefits or without enough benefits to offset lost wages, particularly in southern states with higher shares of Black residents.

Across the country, legislators worked to strengthen unemployment insurance programs during the 2021 legislative session with proposals to increase benefit adequacy, expand eligibility for benefits, and to protect workers from overpayment recovery in non-fraud cases.

Masked worker in truck prepares for shift

State Legislators Boost Unemployment Benefits

A bill (2021 WA SB 5061) enacted by Washington lawmakers would increase the minimum weekly benefit amount in the unemployment insurance program from 15 percent to 20 percent of the state average weekly wage, and it caps the benefit amount at the individual’s weekly wage. 

In Vermont, a bill (2021 VT S 10), as passed by the Senate, would establish a dependent allowance of $50 per week for claimants with one or more dependent children.

A bill (2021 AZ SB 1748/HB 2884) that failed to pass in Arizona would have increased the maximum unemployment benefit amount incrementally over three years from a fixed amount of $205 to 55 percent of the state average weekly wage for all covered workers.

Another bill (2021 AZ HB 2662) that failed to advance in Arizona would have established a dependent allowance for unemployment benefits. Individuals would have received an additional $25 per dependent, not to exceed $50 per week, in addition to their weekly benefit amount.

Florida lawmakers failed to advance a bill (2021 FL HB 207/SB 592) that would have increased the maximum weekly benefit amount from $275 to $500, in addition to increasing the minimum weekly benefit amount from $32 to $100. The bill would have increased the maximum duration for receipt of assistance to 26 weeks. 

In Massachusetts, legislators are considering a bill (2021 MA S 1214/H 2033) to increase unemployment benefits for low-wage workers. The bill would ensure that more workers with low or unstable incomes would be able to access unemployment insurance by providing an alternate calculation method spread over two quarters, instead of one quarter, for workers who did not earn enough to meet the wage-based eligibility test. The bill also establishes a minimum weekly benefit amount of 20 percent of the state average weekly wage or 75 percent of the individual’s average weekly wage, and it increases the total benefit that an individual can receive during a benefit year to a larger share of their wages from 36 percent to 60 percent.

A bill (2021 NE LB 171) introduced by Nebraska lawmakers would increase a claimant’s weekly benefit amount by 5 percent for each dependent of the individual, up to a maximum increase of 15 percent. 

North Carolina legislators are considering a bill (2021 NC SB 320/HB 331) that would increase the maximum weekly benefit amount from $350 to $500 and establish an annual adjustment for inflation, provided that the change is positive. The bill would adopt a more generous method for calculating weekly benefit amounts by using a worker’s wages in their highest paid quarter instead of wages paid in the last two completed quarters. Finally, the bill extends the maximum duration of benefits to 26 weeks.

Black butcher talking to customer at butchers shop

Lawmakers Take Steps to Increase Access to Unemployment Benefits

Oregon lawmakers enacted a bill (2021 OR HB 3178) that eliminates an existing requirement that part-time workers may only be considered unemployed if their weekly wages are less than their weekly benefit amount.

Legislators in Arizona failed to advance a bill (2021 AZ SB 1748/HB 2884) that would have amended the definition of “unemployed” from a weekly wage that is less than the weekly benefit amount to a weekly wage that is less than 140 percent of the weekly benefit amount. The bill would have eliminated the one-week waiting period before workers can receive and qualify for benefits. Additionally, the bill would have allowed more low-wage and part-time workers to be eligible for benefits; existing law requires workers to have been paid wages in one calendar quarter equal to at least 390 times the state minimum wage, and the bill would lower the threshold to 200 times the minimum wage.

In Florida, legislators failed to advance a bill (2021 FL HB 207/SB 592) that would have expanded access to unemployment benefits to more low-wage and nontraditional workers by establishing an “alternative base period” of the four most recently completed calendar quarters before a benefit year if they are ineligible because their wages were too low. Additionally, the wage-based eligibility requirement would have been lowered from $3,400 during a base period to $1,200. The bill would have lowered job search requirements for claimants from five contacts with prospective employers per week to three while allowing claimants to accept only part-time work of at least 20 hours per week. Finally, the bill would have required the Department of Economic Opportunity to establish two alternative methods for submitting a claim for benefits, such as telephone or email, in addition to claims via postal mail or a website.

Lawmakers in Massachusetts are considering legislation (2021 MA S 1202) to expand access to unemployment insurance for workers with fluctuating work schedules. The bill would amend the calculation for an individual’s average weekly wage to allow workers who do not meet the earnings minimum to use an alternate calculation method with a longer base period of two quarters instead of one.

Protecting Against Employee Misclassification

Iowa lawmakers are considering legislation (2021 IA HF 176) that would establish a financial penalty for employers who are found to have willfully failed to pay contributions for state unemployment insurance by misclassifying an employee’s wages equal to the amount that the employer failed to pay.

A bill (2021 MA H 2016) introduced by Massachusetts lawmakers would amend the definition of employer as it applies to unemployment insurance to clarify that employers who contract with independent contractors are responsible for making unemployment insurance contributions.

Access to Unemployment Benefits for Excluded Immigrant Workers

Colorado legislators enacted a bill (2021 CO SB 21-233) that, as introduced, would have established the Left-Behind Workers Program within the Division of Unemployment Insurance that would provide benefits to individuals who are ineligible for unemployment benefits due to their immigration status. Workers would receive benefits equivalent to 55 percent of their average weekly wage, not to exceed the maximum weekly benefit amount for unemployment benefits, for up to 13 weeks. The program was struck from the bill by committee amendments and replaced with a feasibility study before passage.

A bill (2021 NE LB 298) that received first-round approval by Nebraska lawmakers would clarify that work-authorized immigrants are eligible for unemployment benefits. 

Provisions of a bill (2021 NY S 4543/A 5421) to establish the Excluded Worker Fund were incorporated into the final budget (2021 S 2509/A 3009) passed by New York lawmakers. The new fund will provide cash assistance to residents of the state who have suffered a loss of earnings due to the COVID-19 pandemic and during the state of emergency but do not qualify for unemployment benefits and federal relief payments. Workers with $26,208 or less in earnings in the last 12 months and documentation of their work and earnings are eligible for a one-time payment of $14,820; all other workers without work and earnings documentation are eligible for a one-time payment of $3,040.

Washington legislators failed to advance a bill (2021 WA SB 5438) that would have established the Washington Income Replacement for Immigrant Workers Program to “provide unemployment benefits to low-income workers who are unemployed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and not eligible for state or federal unemployment benefits.” Workers who experienced a week of unemployment after January 1, 2021, and before June 20, 2022, due to COVID-19-related reasons would be eligible for a $400 payment for each week of unemployment. 

Work-Sharing Programs

Maryland legislators enacted a bill (2021 MD SB 771/HB 1143) to expand the state’s existing work-sharing plan to include workers who are rehired after a temporary closure or layoff due to COVID-19. Under prior law, employers who reduced their workforce by 20 to 50 percent were eligible for work-sharing programs; the bill widens the range for eligibility employers who reduce their normal weekly work hours by anywhere between 10 and 60 percent.

Under a bill (2021 WV HB 3294) enacted by West Virginia lawmakers, employers can participate in an optional “work sharing plan.” After receiving approval for their plan from the Workforce West Virginia Commissioner, employers can avoid layoffs by reducing the hours of their workforce by no less than 10 percent and no more than 60 percent, while affected employees are eligible for short-term compensation through unemployment benefits.

Wyoming legislators enacted a bill (2021 WY HB 9) to establish the Short Time Compensation Program, which allows employers to submit a plan for approval to request the payment of short time compensation to employees to avoid layoffs. To be eligible for the program, employers must demonstrate that at least two or more employees’ hours will be reduced between 10 percent and 60 percent. 

A bill (2021 HI HB 462) introduced in the Hawaii legislature would establish a work-sharing program for eligible employers. Employers whose work-sharing plans are approved can reduce between 10 and 50 percent of weekly hours of work for eligible employees in lieu of temporary layoffs that would affect at least 10 percent of eligible employees and would result in an equivalent reduction in work hours. 

Indiana legislators failed to advance multiple proposals (2021 IN SB 44, 2021 IN SB 312, 2021 IN HB 1235) that would have created a work-sharing unemployment insurance program. Under each bill, full- and part-time workers who have been continuously employed for at least 16 months prior to the work-sharing plan would have been able to receive unemployment benefits proportional to their reduction in work hours.

Asian barber in mask cutting hair
Good Cause for Voluntary Separation from Employment

Generally, workers are ineligible for unemployment insurance benefits if they voluntarily quit their job or refuse suitable work without “good cause.” While the definition varies by state, good cause exemptions typically protect workers who leave their jobs due to safety concerns, unfair wage or hour violations, to escape domestic violence, or discrimination by their employer. The COVID-19 pandemic spurred many lawmakers across the country to clarify statutory definitions of good cause to accommodate new caregiving needs or health and safety concerns about the work environment.

Nebraska legislators enacted a bill (2021 NE LB 260) that expands the definition of good cause for voluntarily leaving employment to include leaving a job to care for a family member with a serious health condition. Under the new law, family members include children, parents, spouses, grandparents, grandchildren, and siblings, and the definition of serious health condition is the same as defined under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act.

A bill (2021 NY A 6080/S 2623) enacted by New York legislators would amend existing law to provide that a claimant shall not be disqualified from receiving benefits for separation from employment due to “the need for the individual to provide child care to the individual’s child if such individual has made reasonable efforts to secure alternative child care.”

A bill (2021 WA SB 5061) approved by legislators in Washington provides that during a public health emergency, an individual who is at a higher risk of severe illness or death from the relevant disease, or lives with someone who is at higher risk, is eligible for unemployment benefits if they voluntarily leave employment. The bill also amends the definition of “suitable work” for the purposes of work search activities to include “the degree of risk to the health of those residing with the individual during a public health emergency.”

Arizona lawmakers introduced a bill (2021 AZ HB 2663) that failed to advance but would have provided eligibility for unemployment benefits for individuals who leave their employment or refuse an offer of employment or reemployment for reasons related to unsuitable health and safety conditions. The bill also creates good cause provisions that apply during a public health emergency, including violations of public health guidance, a need to provide care for a child or a household member, or if they leave to care for a seriously ill or quarantined family or household member.

In Kentucky, a bill (2021 KY HB 406) that failed to pass would have expanded good cause for leaving employment for the purposes of eligibility for receiving unemployment benefits to include circumstances directly resulting from domestic violence and abuse, dating violence and abuse, sexual assault, or stalking.

A bill (2021 NY S 731/A 2115) introduced by New York lawmakers would provide that a claimant shall not be disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits in cases where they have left their employment because “the employer maintained or refused or failed to cure a health or safety condition that made the environment unsuitable.”

Legislation (2021 VT H 359) that is stalled in Vermont would have expanded the definition of good cause for voluntarily leaving employment to include a change in the location of their place of work that is more than 35 miles from their residence or a location that takes more than one and a half hours to commute to; working conditions that pose a risk to their health and safety as certified by a health care provider; an unreliable work schedule; to care for a family member who is ill, injured, pregnant, or disabled; or to care for a child due to the unavailability of adequate or affordable child care.

A bill (2021 WA HB 1486/SB 5064) introduced by Washington lawmakers would expand good cause circumstances to replace “immediate family member” with “family member,” and add care for a child or vulnerable adult if caregiving is inaccessible, so long as the claimant has made reasonable efforts to a leave of absence or changes in working conditions or work schedule that would accommodate their circumstances. Additionally, the bill expands the existing good cause definition to include a change in the claimant’s usual work shifts or a relocation that makes care for a child or vulnerable adult inaccessible.

Warehouse worker transporting a pallet of cardboard boxes

Lawmakers Protect Workers from Clawbacks in Non-Fraud Overpayment Cases

A bill (2021 OR SB 172) enacted by Oregon lawmakers would allow the state to waive clawbacks in cases where an individual received an overpayment of unemployment benefits if recovery of overpayments would be against “equity and good conscience” and if the overpayment was not due to willful misrepresentation by the recipient.

Legislators in Illinois are considering a bill (2021 IL HB 2773) that would permanently waive recovery or recoupment of unemployment benefits from individuals if their benefit year began during the state’s disaster proclamation in response to COVID-19.

In Indiana, lawmakers introduced a bill (2021 IN SB 237) that failed to advance but would have required the Department of Workforce Development to waive repayment of unemployment benefit overpayments made if they were received without fault of the individual.

A bill (2021 KY HB 240) that failed to advance in Kentucky would have allowed the Secretary of Labor to waive an overpayment of benefits upon request if it was determined that recovery would be against “equity and good conscience,” and the overpayment was due to administrative, clerical, or office error; or not the result of fraud, misrepresentation, willful nondisclosure, or the fault of the recipient.

In New Hampshire, legislators introduced a bill (2021 NH SB 161) that would prohibit the commissioner of employment security from charging interest on unemployment benefit overpayments unless an individual willfully made a false statement or knowingly failed to disclose a material fact, and from requiring repayments by any collection method unless the individual has exhausted all administrative remedies. The bill also directs the commissioner to suspend collection of non-fraud overpayments during the state of emergency, including overpayments that occurred or were established prior to the state of emergency.

New York lawmakers are considering legislation (2021 NY S 6169/A 6666) that would protect unemployment insurance claimants from being held liable for overpayments if the overpayment was not due to fraud or a willful false statement or representation, if the overpayment was received without fault on the part of the claimant, and if the recovery of such overpayment would be against “equity and good conscience.” The bill also provides notice requirements for claimants when a determination is made regarding recovery of overpayments.

In North Carolina, legislators introduced a bill (2021 NC SB 320/HB 331) that amends an existing requirement that any person who has been paid benefits to which they were not entitled shall be liable to repay the overpayment and to create an exception for cases where the error was on the part of any representative of the Division of Employment Security.

A bill (2021 VT H 97) that is stalled in Vermont would provide that “an individual shall not be liable to repay any overpayment of benefits that resulted from something other than the individual’s own act or omission.”

West Virginia legislators failed to advance a bill (2021 WV HB 2873) that would allow the Commissioner of Labor to waive repayment of overpayments of unemployment benefits for which the claimant is not at fault. The Commissioner would be authorized to waive repayment when it would be against “equity and good conscience” and cause financial hardship.

Worker in mask curbside pickup to driver

State Legislators Expand Workers’ Compensation Coverage

A (2021 NY S 3291/A 6077) bill that advanced from both chambers in New York would expand eligibility for workers’ compensation to domestic workers. Domestic workers working a minimum of 20 hours a week will be eligible, up from 40 hours a week. 

Virginia lawmakers enacted a bill (2021 VA SB 1310) to expand coverage of employment protection laws to domestic workers. As introduced, the bill ensured that more domestic workers can access workers’ compensation. The workers’ compensation provisions were removed in the enacted version of the bill, which extends wage protections and safety standards to domestic workers.

In Kansas, a bill (2021 KS HB 2016) introduced would amend existing workers’ compensation law from requiring that an accident be “the prevailing factor in causing the injury” to “a substantial factor in causing the injury.”

New York legislators introduced a bill (2021 NY A 284) that would provide nail specialists a private right of action against employers who violate workers’ compensation and wage laws. The bill also creates financial penalties for health and safety violations and for unlawful retaliation against nail specialists.

States Strengthen Anti-Retaliation Protections

Lawmakers in New York are considering legislation (2021 NY S 3732/A 6775) to clarify that discrimination and retaliation by an employer against a worker who claims workers’ compensation includes the threat of reporting the citizenship status of a worker’s or a worker’s family member.

Vermont legislators introduced a bill (2021 VT H 139) to amend existing anti-discrimination protections under workers’ compensation statutes to prohibit employers with 15 or more employees from firing an employee because of their absence from work during a period of temporary total disability.

Legislators Ensure That Workers Have a Right to Choose Their Own Doctor

A bill (2021 CO SB 21-197) that failed to advance in Colorado would have allowed injured workers to choose their treating physician from an existing list of accredited physicians through the Department of Labor and Employment. Existing law limits the selection of treating physicians to a list of designated providers as provided by the employer or by the worker’s compensation insurer.

Indiana lawmakers failed to advance a bill (2021 IN HB 1339) to allow employees to choose the physician for services required as a result of an employment injury or occupational disease for the purposes of workers’ compensation. Under current law, workers are required to receive treatment from a physician supplied by their employer.

In Montana, a bill (2021 MT HB 412) that failed would have amended workers’ compensation statutes to allow workers to choose their own treating physician. Existing law allows workers to choose the treating physician for initial treatment, but insurers may designate another treating physician or approve the worker’s chosen physician.

Wage Theft Protections

Each year, employers steal billions of dollars from the paychecks of workers, most frequently from workers of color, women, immigrants, and low-wage workers. Employers, especially corporations that intentionally refuse to pay workers for wages earned, must be held accountable for wage theft violations to ensure that workers can seek justice without fear of losing even more of their hard-earned wages. Enforcement of wage theft violations vary significantly across the nation and is dependent on a state’s enforcement capacity, legal protections and penalties for violations, and anti-retaliation protections for workers

State legislators took steps to rein in and deter employer wage theft violations during the 2021 legislative session by strengthening state enforcement practices, increasing compensation for workers, enhancing employer penalties, and closing loopholes that allow employers to evade labor protections.

Asian manicure therapist filing customer nails in nail salon with protective screen

Lawmakers Strengthen State Enforcement of Wage Theft Violations

A bill (2021 MA S 1179/H 1959) introduced by Massachusetts lawmakers would authorize the state attorney general to file a civil action for injunctive relief, damages, and lost wages and benefits on behalf of an employee or group of employees. Where such cases prevail, employees are entitled to treble (or triple) damages and the state shall be awarded the costs of litigation and reasonable attorneys’ fees. The bill also authorizes the attorney general to issue a stop work order against a person or entity found to be in violation of certain wage laws. The bill also creates whistleblower and anti-retaliation protections for workers involved in wage theft claims by creating a rebuttable presumption of a violation of law where an employer discriminates or takes adverse action against a worker within 90 days of their exercise of rights under the law.

New York lawmakers are considering the “Empowering People in Rights Enforcement (EMPIRE) Worker Protection Act” (2021 NY S 12/A 5876), which would allow workers to initiate a public enforcement action on behalf of the state for violations of labor laws and regulation, including wage theft. Under the bill, workers would also be able to authorize a labor union or nonprofit organization to initiate a public enforcement action on their behalf. The bill designates that a portion of civil penalties recovered, depending on whether the state was an intervener in the case, be remitted to the Department of Labor for future enforcement actions.

Another bill (2021 NY A 1893) proposed by New York legislators would require that cities with a population of one million or more residents shall reject bids for contracts where the bidder “has had any safety, wage theft, or other violations involving the mistreatment of employees or contractors,” among other new considerations regarding the bidder’s history of compliance with the law or project performance.

In Texas, legislators failed to advance a bill (2021 TX SB 1834/HB 190) that would have established a publicly accessible wage theft database of employers that have been assessed a penalty, ordered to pay a wage claim, or convicted of a wage penalty offense. Employers would remain on the database for three years after their assessment or conviction.

Lawmakers Improve Recovery of Lost Wages, Damages, and Legal Costs

In Arkansas, legislators introduced but failed to advance the “Right to Know and Get Your Pay Act” (2021 AR SB 600), which would have entitled workers to damages in the amount of twice their wages due. The bill also would have established an employee’s right to file civil action against an employer who fails to comply with the new law. Workers who prevail in such cases are entitled to unpaid wages, an additional 25 percent of unpaid wages as damages, reasonable attorneys’ fees and litigation costs; in cases that are found to be an intentional violation, workers are entitled to double damages. Finally, the bill would have provided new anti-retaliation protections for workers who engage in wage theft enforcement actions, and employers who are found to have retaliated are subject to civil action and a penalty of $5,000.

Lawmakers in Illinois passed legislation (2021 IL SB 2476/HB 118) to increase the amount of damages that workers can recover in cases of wage theft. Under current law, workers are entitled to the amount of underpayments, in addition to damages of 2 percent of underpayments for each month following the date of payment during which such underpayments remain unpaid; the bill would increase damages to 5 percent of lost wages.

A bill (2021 NY S 2762/A 766) introduced in New York would ensure that workers can recover wage claims ordered in court judgments or administrative decisions when an employer transfers or hides assets. The bill creates an employee’s lien, where wage claims can be resolved against an employer’s interest in property.

North Carolina legislators are considering a bill (2021 NC SB 446) that would increase the amount of damages that an aggrieved worker is entitled to in recovering unpaid wages. Existing law provides damages equal to the amount unpaid in addition to 8 percent interest; the bill would increase damages to twice the amount unpaid, plus interest. The bill also authorizes courts to award statutory damages of up to $500 per employee per violation in cases where an intentional violation of wage theft is found, in addition to requiring legal fees to be paid by the defendant. Finally, the bill allows for recovery of unpaid wages to be enforced through a lien on property of the employer or property upon which the employee has performed work.

Cleaning staff disinfecting elevator

State Legislators Enhance Employer Penalties for Wage Theft Violations

Lawmakers in California approved legislation (2021 CA AB 1003) that would create a new crime of grand theft for the intentional theft of wages, including benefits or other compensation, in an amount greater than $950, in aggregate, by an employer. As amended, the bill includes theft of gratuities and includes independent contractors within the definition of employee. 

In Kentucky, lawmakers failed to advance a bill (2021 KY HB 63) that would have created a new Class A misdemeanor for employer theft of wages in cases where the value of unpaid wages was less than $500. Under the bill, wage theft of $500 or more but less than $10,000 would be a Class D felony, and cases of wage theft of $10,000 would be a Class C felony.

A bill (2021 NY S 4009/A 2022) introduced in New York would amend the definition of property relating to the existing crime of larceny to include wage theft.

North Carolina lawmakers are considering a bill (2021 NC SB 446) that would establish civil penalties for employers who violate minimum wage, overtime, wage payment, and employee wage notification laws. Under the bill, the maximum penalty would be $500 for the first violation and $1,000 for each subsequent violation.

In Rhode Island, legislators failed to advance a bill (2021 RI S 195/H 5870) that would have strengthened penalties for wage theft and employee misclassification. The bill would have created a new felony for misclassification and wage theft, punishable by up to three years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000 for the first offense of lost wages of $1,500 to $5,000, or up to five years in prison and a fine of three times the wage amount or $20,000, whichever is greater, for subsequent violations in excess of $5,000. 

Legislators Close Employer Liability Loopholes

Lawmakers in New York enacted a bill (2021 NY S 2766/A 3350) targeting the evasion of wage theft enforcement by construction subcontractors. The bill would clarify that the general or prime contractor of a construction project assumes liability for unpaid wages, benefits, damages, and attorneys’ fees resulting from civil or administrative actions for wage theft claims against its subcontractors. Additionally, the bill authorizes contractors to withhold payments to subcontractors for failure to comply with wage theft prevention measures, including the provision of payroll records.

In Massachusetts, a bill (2021 MA S 1179/H 1959) under consideration would subject lead contractors to joint and several civil liability (in cases where multiple parties are at fault, each party is independently liable for the full amount of damages) for wage theft violations of any contractor or subcontractor that performs labor or services “that has a significant nexus with the lead contractor’s business activities, operations or purposes.” Under the bill, lead contractors who receive notice of wage theft violations against a person performing labor for them through a contractor or subcontractor may provide the unpaid wages directly to the person or withhold payments to the contractor or subcontractor in the amount of unpaid wages.

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