2019 Legislative Priorities
Working to dismantle and transform the systems that perpetuate poverty and injustice.
Columbia Legal Services – POLICY REFORM
Columbia Legal Services is a statewide legal impact advocacy organization that works to dismantle and transform the systems that perpetuate poverty and injustice. Our work is directed by the communities we serve across Washington state – those who are most impacted by the broken immigration system and mass incarceration. We believe that to achieve justice, all communities should have a voice in the creation and implementation of the policies, laws, and legal systems that impact them. We made some significant strides toward this vision this session, including these highlights:
Protecting low-income consumers
- Families should be able to focus on basic needs instead of facing steep interest rates and having their bank accounts raided. We helped to increase exemptions from garnishment of wages and bank accounts stemming from consumer debt, and we reduced the interest rate on judgments based on consumer debt (HB 1602).
- We worked to reduce the burden of medical debt by preventing the assignment of medical debt to collection agencies for 120 days, by improving notice about charity care, and by prohibiting creditors from requesting bench warrants from courts for people who owe medical debt, which can result in jail time (HB 1531).
- We backed bills that prohibit the practice of reviving expired debt when someone makes a partial payment (HB 1730) and prohibit collection agencies from initiating collection lawsuits and serving consumers with a summons and complaint without first filing those actions in court (HB 1066).
Protecting low-income tenants
- We advocated for a bill that will help keep tenants in their homes by increasing the time frame that tenants have to pay their landlords what they owe from just three days to 14 days. “Fourteen days can make the difference in staying sheltered,” said CLS attorney Sarah Nagy. This bill also gives judges greater discretion to help people stay in their homes in cases where tenants are behind on their rent (SB 5600).
- We fought for a bill that will double the notice required for a landlord to raise rent from 30 to 60 days. Tenants facing rent increases will have more time to respond in a way that reduces their financial burden and meets their family’s needs (HB 1440).
- Another new law will increase the time frame tenants have to move out if the landlord plans to demolish or change the use of their property from 20 to 120 days (HB 1462).
Protecting farm workers
- We helped create and fund a centralized office within the state Employment Security Department to oversee compliance with the H-2A visa program – “a system that allows employers to exploit foreign seasonal workers with little accountability…and is in dire need of meaningful oversight in this state,” said CLS attorney Andrea Schmitt (SB 5438).
- We helped support a bill that limits state and local agency compliance with federal immigration enforcement, making Washington State a national leader with the strongest statewide sanctuary policy. This gives law enforcement agencies the guidance and support they need to focus on keeping all Washington residents safe (SB 5497).
- We helped to end the practice of locking up children for non-criminal offenses like truancy and running away from foster homes (SB 5290).
Reducing mass incarceration
- We helped support an effort to remove Robbery in the 2nd degree from the list of crimes that would count as a strike under the state’s three strikes laws. Now fewer crimes can trigger the three strikes law, which results in a life without parole sentence (SB 5288).
Thank you to all of our clients, advocates, allies, legislative champions, and Governor Jay Inslee who helped make these wins possible.
There’s plenty more work to do and we’ll be on the front lines advocating to ensure Washington State is a place in which every person enjoys full human rights and economic opportunities.
Governor Signs Bill Paving Way for Meaningful Protections for H-2A Farmworkers
On May 21, Governor Jay Inslee signed a bill (SB 5438) into law improving oversight of the problematic “H-2A” temporary agricultural worker visa program, which has expanded rapidly in Washington in recent years while enforcement has not kept pace.
While the H-2A program is federal, the state Employment Security Department (ESD) is mandated to review applications, conduct audits of employers using H-2A workers, and conduct a large-scale, yearly survey that sets wages for those in the program. Federal funding has not kept pace with the growth in the program, which has grown 1,000% since 2010, with an estimated 30,000 H-2A workers coming to Washington State this year.
“All workers in Washington deserve protections. We have seen up-close, through our interactions with workers and through documents turned over in court cases, the ways that the H-2A system allows employers to exploit foreign seasonal workers with little accountability,” said Andrea Schmitt, a staff attorney with Columbia Legal Services which has represented workers in several class-action cases involving the H-2A program. “This system is in dire need of meaningful oversight in this state.”
Funded with a budget appropriation of $3.5 million over the next two years, the bill creates an office within ESD to coordinate the state’s oversight of the H-2A program. The bill also creates a committee with worker, industry, and state-agency representatives who will meet regularly and provide periodic reports to the legislature. The new funding will result in ESD adding approximately 10 full time employees to its current two-person staff for the H-2A program.
H-2A workers are expressly exempt from the main federal law that protects farmworkers – the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act. What’s more, retaliation against H-2A workers who try to demand even basic employment standards is rampant because the workers’ visas tie them to a single employer, thus they can’t “vote with their feet” if conditions are bad. Employers also have absolute control over which workers get job offers from foreign recruiters, and workers are regularly put on “do not hire” lists if they complain. The workers are also isolated when they come to the state to work. They are far from home, with no family support, they usually live in remote housing with no access to stores or other resources, and they rarely have drivers’ licenses or cars.
Columbia Legal Services currently represents a class of H-2A workers from Sarbanand Farms in Whatcom County. Some of these workers were fired and evicted with an hour’s notice when they asked questions about the illness of their coworker, Honesto Silva Ibarra, who later died.
The Senate version of the bill was sponsored by Sen. John McCoy (D-Tulalip) while the House version was sponsored by Rep. Laurie Dolan (D-Olympia).
“We as a state have a responsibility to these workers, who make our agricultural industry run, but who have very little ability to get help when something goes wrong,” added Schmitt. “We are grateful to Sen. John McCoy and Rep. Debra Lekanoff for their work on this critical issue.”