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Know Your Rights
Source: Times Union
Subject: Workplace Justice
Type: Media Coverage

Activists Ready for Last Shot

ALBANY — The organization Make the Road New York is bringing a busload of activists to Albany on Monday — and they won’t be looking for post-Thanksgiving shopping deals.

Instead, they’re pushing for a bill designed to stiffen penalties for employers who withhold worker wages, a measure currently sitting in legislative purgatory. Make the Road is one of many groups hoping that a special session called by Gov. David Paterson will provide an opportunity to resolve their issues.

And with the state Senate looking as though it might be controlled by Republicans in January, there’s a renewed sense of urgency.

“Republicans are not as concerned with the plights of low-wage workers, and we’re worried that if (the wage bill) doesn’t pass now, it will be a much harder battle in next year’s legislative session,” said Ady Barkan, an advocate for Make the Road. “So we’re doing a full-court press now.”

Other advocates share that thinking, particularly those backing bills that have passed just one chamber. The legislative session concluded this summer without the customary flurry of all-nighters, and the Assembly — having completed its work on the tardy state budget — left Albany before the Senate.

Discussions between the Senate, Assembly and governor’s office on the agenda for Monday’s session are ongoing, with measures like the wage theft bill, a moratorium on natural gas drilling and a measure expanding abortion rights all possible.

Paterson repeated Monday that the purpose of the session is to “consider reducing the deficit, which has grown because many of our budget claims … have been bottled up in the courts, and we’re going to need about $315 million.”

The governor has nominal control over a special session agenda; the formal proclamation issued by his office lists issues for consideration, and legislation is sent from his office — but often the Assembly and Senate gavel into a continuation of the regular session for the year, allowing them to act on any bill that was introduced since January 2009.

Lawmakers are likely to pass legislation allowing New York to spend additional federal education aid appropriated by the federal government this summer, but it’s less clear that they’ll heed Paterson’s call to cut spending.

Many hoping for action view the Senate warily. All 32 Democrats are needed to pass a bill along party lines, and lame ducks like Sen. Pedro Espada Jr. — ousted in a September primary — have little incentive to fall into line.

“Everything’s been so unclear that I have not done anything yet,” said Kelli Conlin, president of NARAL Pro-Choice New York, a group advocating for expanded abortion rights in the Reproductive Health Act. “Once it becomes a little clearer to everyone if they’re really going back and what their focus will be, you’re going to see us and a variety of groups pushing them to take up legislation that has a risk of not passing under Republican control. But we know we have the votes regardless of who’s in the leadership.”

Legislative sources are less confident. No Republicans have publicly proclaimed their support for the measure. Senate Democrats committed to bring the bill to a vote in 2011 — a promise that prompted NARAL to endorse several Democratic senators — although some in the party questioned whether the votes would be present if the measure came to the floor.

Often, though, the question is choosing to take up the bill. Assemblyman Carl Heastie, the Bronx Democrat who is the sponsor of the wage theft bill, is working to iron out “minor details” between a version that passed his chamber and another that passed the Senate. Absent a final agreement, he might push to have the Assembly take on the Senate’s bill.

“I think it’s less likely that the Republicans — any Republicans — will be as supportive of this bill as a Democratic Senate. So this and other legislation, we have to get done now,” he said. “We always knew that, no matter what, we would have to come back. There was always not a ‘When?’ but a ‘What do we do when we come back?’

“I’m still not sure,” he said, “and we’re still developing an agenda.”