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May 21, 2018

Spring Meeting draws record attendance as employers seek solutions

By: Andrew Lenderman   Comments: 0
AWB President Kris Johnson addresses a record number of employers, lawmakers and state and national experts who convened at AWB's 2018 Spring Meeting in Spokane. Nearly 300 people came together to discuss challenges and solutions to keep Washington competitive. (Photo: Brian Mittge/AWB)

SPOKANE--The robots may not come for your job, just the routine parts that can be automated. Rural Washington needs about $1 billion to build out the broadband network. And manufacturing tax relief still has a chance.

Those are just a few key takeaways from AWB’s Spring Meeting in Spokane last week, which drew nearly 300 Washington employers, state and national experts and elected officials to come together and discuss ways to keep Washington competitive. This year’s attendance set a record.

Trade

Tuesday began with a keynote presentation on trade. John Murphy of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce pointed out the big picture, or the really big picture, when it comes to international trade: Trade was 40 percent of the world’s gross domestic product in 2015, twice what it was in 1990.

International trade has dominated the news in recent weeks, from NAFTA to China to the World Trade Organization. Murphy highlighted that other countries are moving on and making their own deals. The European Union has 58 trade agreements with other countries, for example. The United States has 20.

“What you see is all these countries reaching new trade pacts among themselves,” he said. “The world won’t stand still.”

Washington exports totaled about $77 billion in 2017, and roughly 40 percent of all jobs in the state are tied to trade.

Marijuana

Tuesday afternoon was packed with timely panel discussions, including cannabis and the workplace. Jeff Bosma, owner of Fast Way Freight in Spokane, noted that his company’s drivers are subject to federal rules on commercial driver’s licenses, no matter what state or local governments say about marijuana. The commercial driver’s licenses require a zero-tolerance policy.

Bosma said he’s already having a hard time finding enough drivers, and when the company applies the drug free workplace rule, that problem is only exacerbated. His story illustrated the challenges facing many Washington employers.

Employers can absolutely require a drug free workplace, even in states that have legal medical and recreational marijuana, employment attorney Suzanne Thomas of K&L Gates said.

Paid leave

Other Washington employers shared their experience with new paid leave laws. Leaders from both SEL and DH said the recently approved paid sick and safe leave requirements were no big deal because their companies already offered it. Paid family and medical leave, on the other hand, is proving to be more complex.

“The Paid Family and Medical Leave was a bigger problem because we have employees in other states that may not have that kind of leave policy,” Michele Beehler of SEL said. She said that the prospect of workers, particularly their Idaho employees across the border, may look to transfer to the Washington facility to take advantage of the leave. So, the company is looking into the various leave policies in all states where they operate to find the right solution that’s “holistic and fair for the entire organization.”

Michelle Hege of DH said her company is crunching the numbers before making a decision on whether to opt-in or out of the new Paid Family and Medical Leave program.

Premiums for paid family and medical leave will be deducted from paychecks in Jan. 2019 with the benefit available in Jan. 2020.

Automation

One of the transformations in the workforce is the “unbundling” of jobs into specific tasks that can be automated.

James McCafferty of Western Washington University asked the audience to imagine a classic job, and all the functions of that job. Some functions pay better than others. So, it makes sense to focus on the valuable ones and maybe automate the routine ones.

This development is “one of those structural changes that I think is hard for some people to get their heads around,” McCafferty said. “That we have literally unbundled the concept of jobs in our economy.”

McCafferty also gave an overview of the national economy that shows half of the U.S. population lives in just 146 counties, out of more than 3,000 nationwide. Many of those counties are urban, and many young people are moving to metro areas to start their careers. Some urban areas have very strong economic growth, and some rural areas are left behind. He asked the audience to think about news stories, and narratives.

“We’re living in a very bifurcated story,” McCafferty said.

Rural Broadband

That same theme came up in a panel discussion on funding rural broadband solutions. Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, asked how people can start a business if they don’t have reliable internet to get the information they need. He also said some constituents have told him they can tell when kids get home from school to do their homework because the network slows to a crawl.

“It became very clear to me that if the rural areas are going to thrive in this economy they need reliable rural broadband,” Orcutt said.

An estimated 200,000 to 400,000 people lack access to broadband in Washington.

Betty Buckley of the Washington Independent Telecommunications Association said it would take about $1 billion to build out the network in Washington state.

“We as a state need to make the decision about whether or not we’re going to step up to that really big ugly number and make it happen.” Buckley said.

Taxes

Also Tuesday, state lawmakers gave employers an update on the budget and taxes.

Both Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, and Rep. Larry Springer, D-Kirkland, highlighted the lack of any new taxes to balance out spending in the state budget.

Springer said that the one thing lawmakers didn’t get done was “to even out the business and occupation tax for manufacturers.” He said later that with accountability provisions – like job creation and tax collection increases – he thinks lawmakers could pass it next year.

Billig was less optimistic. “You can’t on one hand take away tax revenue without replacing it in the other hand,” he said.

Looking ahead to 2019, Rep. Bruce Chandler, R-Granger, said taxpayers want to know what they are getting for their money.

“In the last 25 years, there was only one year the Legislature spent less than the year before,” Chandler said. “We need clear priorities that ensure value to taxpayers.” The public should weigh in to help craft those priorities, he added.

Billing also discussed the future state budget.

“Now that we rely on the four-year balanced budget outlook, it may mean we see larger deficits ahead,” he said. “We’ll know more when the next revenue forecasts come out, but the numbers look like significant red in the next budget.”

Tuesday afternoon closed with a packed reception at Spokane’s Davenport Grand Hotel. The 2018 Leadership Washington class graduated during the dinner program, followed by a powerful speech from Capt. “Sully” Sullenberger, who shared his story of leadership under pressure as he landed a crippled passenger jet on the Hudson river. The two-day event closed Wednesday with AWB’s Board meeting.

To get involved and learn more about the issues that impact Washington’s economy, call 360.943.1600 or visit www.awb.org.

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