On January 24, the City Council of Berkeley, CA, passed a “right-to-request law.” This law gives employees the right to request part-time work, flexible working hours, predictable working hours, and flexible working arrangements (such as telecommuting). Employers can refuse the request by providing a business reason that they cannot accommodate the request. Employees cannot appeal the reason for the refusal.
Though it has no teeth, this sort of law has been very effective. The United Kingdom has had this sort of law since 2002, and the overwhelming majority of requests have been granted. Germany and the Netherlands have much stricter laws, which allow employees to appeal the reason for refusal and have the government make the final decision, but the percentage of requests that have been granted is about the same in the UK as in Germany and the Netherlands. In 2013, right-to-request laws were passed in Vermont and San Francisco, and in 2014, President Obama issued an executive order giving federal employees the right to request.
In late 2013, I took the preliminary steps needed to put an advisory measure on the Berkeley ballot calling on the city to pass a right-to-request law. In the early months of 2014, we gathered signatures. Later in 2014, I got endorsements from organizations including the Sierra Club, the Berkeley Democratic Club, the National Women’s Political Caucus-Alameda North, the Green Party of Alameda County, the Alameda County Democratic Party, and others. I also got endorsements from Berkeley’s mayor and from seven of the eight councilmembers; the other councilmember did not oppose the initiative but said that she did not have enough time to study it thoroughly.
No one submitted an argument against the initiative for the ballot pamphlet. With all of these endorsements and no opposition, the initiative (Measure Q on the November 2014 Berkeley ballot) won with more than 78% of the votes—an overwhelming margin.
Since this was an advisory initiative, I had to follow up the initiative victory by getting a law passed. After the election, I asked the mayor to refer the issue to the Labor Commission.
I produced a first draft of a law based on San Francisco’s law. The main change I made was to remove provisions in the San Francisco law that limited the right-to-request to caregivers (such as parents of preschool children), since the initiative called on Berkeley to pass a law that applied to all employees.
The Labor Commission spent about a year working on this draft ordinance. There was no opposition, but there were delays because this commission meets only every other month and because it was tied up with a very controversial minimum wage law at the same time.
After the Labor Commission produced a draft, city staff spent about a year reviewing and modifying it. Staff members made some useful changes, such as replacing the penalties for noncompliance defined in the San Francisco law with the penalties that already existed in Berkeley’s municipal code for noncompliance with similar ordinances.
The ordinance finally got to the city council on January 24, 2017, more than two years after the initiative passed. It was on the Consent Calendar, which means that it is a non-controversial item to be passed without discussion. But any councilmember can pull items from the Consent Calendar and put them on the Action Calendar for discussion, and items automatically move to the Action Calendar if four or more members of the public talk about them during the public comments on the Consent Calendar.
Before the meeting started, the vice-chair of the Labor Commission told me that he had heard the downtown merchants and Chamber of Commerce were telling people to come and speak against the ordinance—the sort of flurry of last-minute opposition that is common in Berkeley. If large numbers spoke against it, the Council might refer the ordinance back to the Commission to deal with their concerns.
With some anxiety, we kept track of everyone who spoke about the Consent Calendar, and it turned out that only two business people spoke against our item. That meant that one of us could speak and still keep the number of speakers down to three, so it wouldn’t automatically be pulled. I let the Labor Commissioner speak.
After public comments, the councilmembers can pull items from the Consent Calendar, and none of them mentioned our item. It passed on the Consent Calendar item by unanimous consensus of the City Council.
The irony is that, after talking about this issue for two years, I did not get a chance to speak at the meeting where the ordinance was passed.
The two Labor Commission staff members who were there, the commissioner who spoke, and I all felt great that our work had finally borne fruit—and we felt great that it was passed on the Consent Calendar, because it showed the strength of Council support.
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