Proposed Bill Would Limit Local Government Control Over Employment Matters

January 25, 2018

Republican state lawmakers recently proposed legislation that would limit local governments from enacting ordinances and other employment rules that are contrary to state law. Several municipalities, including Madison and Milwaukee, have implemented stringent and comprehensive employment regulations that typically provide greater protections for employees. The proposed legislation seeks to prevent local governments from enacting such ordinances and other regulations if they are inconsistent with state law.

Local Employment Rules

City ordinances in Madison and Milwaukee are generally considered more employee-friendly than the Wisconsin Fair Employment Act and other state employment laws. For instance, Madison and Milwaukee ordinances protect a broader range of job applicants and workers, including the homeless, domestic abuse victims, students, and transgender people. Recently, Dane County and Madison have taken steps to increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour for government workers, although no law has yet passed. Local ordinances also provide for higher penalties when employers violate them. Under the Madison ordinance, victims of harassment or other discrimination can obtain compensation for emotional distress, which is not permitted under state law.

Republican legislators are critical of the local rules because they create a patchwork of varying regulations that make it more complicated and more expensive for businesses with multiple offices to comply with the law. Business leaders argue that compliance costs have a negative impact on consumers and job opportunities for workers.

Critics of the proposed legislation, such as members of the Dane County Board of Supervisors, counter that state lawmakers are trying to cure a problem that doesn’t exist. Dane County officials point to the expanding population and job growth in their county as strong evidence that more stringent employment rules at the local level haven’t impeded economic growth.

Proposed Bill

The proposed bill would block local governments from enacting laws that are more stringent than state law. More specifically, the legislation would:

  • Create a statewide standard for employment discrimination claims;
  • Create uniform statewide regulations for employment hours and benefits;
  • Set a statewide standard that prevents municipalities from enacting their ordinances over wage claims;
  • Block local requirements that city contractors earn a minimum wage;
  • Prohibit municipalities from requiring contractors to enter into labor peace agreements with unions;
  • Give employers the right to ask for prospective employees’ salary history; and
  • Restrict local governments from creating their own occupational licenses.

At this point, the legislation is in its early stages and its fate is uncertain. Republican legislators are still working on obtaining enough sponsors to begin discussions on the bill. The final version of the legislation may look considerably different from what is currently proposed.

It’s worth noting that the proposed legislation wouldn’t affect federal employment laws, which generally permit punitive damages and compensatory damages for emotional distress. However, those laws usually apply only to employers that have more than 15 employees.

Bottom Line

Employers are often faced with a dizzying array of employment laws on the federal, state, and local levels. The proposed legislation would attempt to ease that burden. We will continue to monitor the bill and provide updates on any significant developments.

This article, slightly modified to note recent updates, was featured in the January 2018 issue of the Wisconsin Employment Law Letter, which is co-edited by Axley Brynelson Attorneys Saul Glazer and Michael Modl and published by BLR®—Business & Legal Resources. Reproduced here with the permission of BLR®—Business & Legal Resources.

For more information about "Proposed Bill Would Limit Local Government Control Over Employment Matters," contact Justin H. Lessner at jlessner@axley.com or 608.283.6761.