This is a weekly post spotlighting labor topics in focus by the US legislative and executive branches. In this issue, we cover:

  • US Federal Labor ViewpointsBiden Administration labor leadership updates
  • Labor rights bill
  • Congressional COVID relief package language takes shape
  • Federal minimum wage battle
  • Federal Family and Medical Leave updates
  • Worker health safety/unemployment claims
  • Apprenticeship news
  • Labor congressional committee news

Biden Administration Labor Leadership Updates

  • On Thursday, February 11, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee voted 18 to 4 to advance the nomination of Marty Walsh to serve as Secretary of Labor.
    • Timing on the Senate floor vote, however, has not yet been set, but could occur the week of February 22, when the Senate returns from recess.
  • On Wednesday, February 10, the White House announced California Labor Secretary Julie Su is President Joe Biden’s choice to serve as Deputy Secretary of Labor, a position that requires Senate approval.
    • As part of the confirmation process, we anticipate that Republicans will ask questions about her role in overseeing the California agency responsible for paying at least $11 billion in fraudulent jobless benefits claims during the pandemic.
  • On Thursday, February 11, the media reported Michele Evermore, currently with the National Employment Law Project, has been selected for a newly created role at the U.S. Labor Department to address increased claims for jobless benefits due to the pandemic.  Evermore reportedly will serve as a senior policy adviser on unemployment insurance, a position within the Labor Department’s Employment and Training Administration.
    • The White House has yet to confirm this appointment.
  • On Friday, February 5, the media reported that Pronita Gupta, a former Obama-era official at the U.S. Department of Labor, has been selected as a senior White House adviser on labor policy.  Her role is within the White House Domestic Policy Council, where she can help shape President Biden’s workplace agenda by working with the Labor Department, National Labor Relations Board, and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to coordinate policy, regulations, and personnel decisions.
    • The White House has yet to confirm this appointment, which is not subject to Senate confirmation.

Labor Rights Bill.  On Thursday, February 4, Democratic lawmakers – Senate HELP Chairman Patty Murray (D-Washington) and House Education & Labor Chairman Bobby Scott (D-Virginia) – reintroduced the PRO Act (H.R. 842 – note, bill text not yet posted to, a comprehensive labor rights bill that the Democratic-controlled House first passed in the 116th Congress.  The lawmakers stressed the need to strengthen workers’ rights under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and improve workers’ benefits and safety during the coronavirus pandemic.  The legislation would allow financial penalties on companies that violate labor laws and aims to reduce the misuse of the independent contractor classification for workers, among other provisions.  A House Education & Labor Committee section-by-section summary of the bill is available here.

Republicans and major business groups, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have opposed it, making the bill’s passage in the Senate doubtful, where the Senate sponsors will need the support of at least 10 GOP votes to advance the measure.  Nevertheless, Senate HELP Committee Chair Murray touted the PRO Act during the confirmation hearing for Marty Walsh as one of the policies she aims to pursue.

Congressional COVID Relief Package Language Takes Shape.  Congressional committees released text of language for the COVID relief package this past week, as Democrats push forward with advancing another COVID relief bill under the budget reconciliation process with a goal of getting the package to the President’s desk by mid-March.  The proposed legislation addressed these labor-related topics:

House Education & Labor Committee

  • Gradually increases the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025 and guarantees that tipped workers, youth workers, workers with disabilities are paid the full federal minimum wage.
  • Provides the Department of Labor $150 million to implement COVID –19 worker protection programs, including $75 million specifically for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
  • Establishes a presumption that COVID-19 is work-related and authorizes eligibility for medical benefits, lost wages, and survivor benefits for longshore and shipyard workers, under the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (LHWCA), as well as federal and postal workers, under the Federal Employees’ Compensation Act (FECA).

House Ways & Means Committee

  • Extends temporary federal unemployment and benefits through August 29, 2021.
  • Increases the weekly benefit from $300 to $400.
  • Stabilizes the pensions for more than 1 million Americans, who participate in multiemployer plans that are rapidly approaching insolvency.

Republicans continue to object to the Democratic-led budget reconciliation process for the COVID relief bill.  House Education & Labor Committee GOP Members argued the Democratic-led COVID bill effort would “kill 1.4 million jobs by raising the national minimum wage by 107 percent [and would u]ndermine the integrity of workers’ compensation programs and force taxpayers to cover many non-employment-related claims.”

Nevertheless, on Wednesday, the House Education & Labor Committee voted 27-21, along party lines, to advance its $357.9 billion draft proposal for inclusion in a COVID-19 relief package.  A significant portion of the Committee’s Tuesday mark-up debate focused on a provision in the proposal to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025, with Republicans offering six amendments aimed at weakening or altogether striking the wage increase; all of which were rejected.

The House Ways & Means Committee marked up of its portions of the COVID-19 package over two days, concluding on Thursday with Committee Democrats rejecting GOP amendments in party line votes.  Both parties debated at length the union pension fix that Republicans labeled a “bailout,” with two GOP amendments combined as one and voted down by Democrats.  The Committee advanced nine subtitles that total approximately $941 billion of the $1.89 trillion COVID-19 relief package.

Federal Minimum Wage Battle.  With respect to progressive Democrats efforts to include a $15/hour federal minimum wage provision in the COVID-19 relief package, Senior Democrats have cautioned that procedural obstacles could force them to strip the minimum wage hike from the bill in the weeks ahead.  No one can predict whether policies, such as the $15 minimum wage, will stay intact in the Senate’s final bill.  The Senate parliamentarian will ultimately determine which provisions pass muster under the “Byrd Rule,” which was written to limit the use of the budget reconciliation process to avoid the inclusion of policy measures that have only an “incidental” impact on the budget.

In an interview that aired on Sunday, President Biden conceded that raising the minimum wage via the COVID-19 relief package may not be possible, adding he would continue to work on this via a standalone measure.  On Monday, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released a report that predicted that the Raise the Wage Act of 2021 (H.R. 603), if enacted in March 2021, would increase the cumulative budget deficit over the 2021–2031 period by $54 billion.  CBO also said that the minimum wage increase could result in 1.4 million jobs being lost by 2025, while adding it would lift 900,000 people out of poverty.

Senate Budget Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) appeared skeptical of the CBO estimate on job losses, but noted that since the CBO estimate shows such a substantial revenue loss, it should not run afoul of the Byrd Rule.  He believes budget reconciliation is the “only way” Democrats could pass a $15/hour minimum wage.  Senator Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) meanwhile has said that he supports a “responsible and reasonable” minimum wage hike, arguing that it should settle  somewhere around $11/hour in his home state.  The Senate approved an amendment offered by Senator Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) last week, which put the Senate on record against an immediate hike in the minimum wage.  Chairman Sanders noted that his proposal did not envision an immediate hike since it would be spread over time, and thus shrugged off the significance of the amendment.

Federal Family & Medical Leave Updates.  Notably, the COVID committee language from the House Labor Committee and the House Ways & Means Committees did not include federal family and medical leave language.  On Friday, February 5, Senator Kristin Gillibrand (D-New York) and Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-Connecticut) introduced a federal family and medical leave standalone measure – the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act.  Senator Gillibrand and Representative DeLauro indicated that they would be “fighting” to include this bill in the COVID relief package currently being drafted under the budget reconciliation process.  The bill reportedly has the support of more than 230 members of Congress.  Senator Gillibrand has noted she has the support of Senate Democratic leadership.  Representative DeLauro said they met with President Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and White House staff last Friday and discussed how to get the bill passed (previous efforts to pass similar legislation stalled in the Senate during the 116th Congress).  Senator Gillibrand shared,

Getting it in the Covid relief bill, even in a pandemic form, is extremely valuable because it lays the groundwork for a permanent paid leave.”

In sum, the FAMILY Act would create a permanent, national paid family and medical leave program allowing workers to receive up to 12 weeks of paid leave at 66% of their regular wage rate for specific reasons such as a pregnancy, the birth or adoption of a child, recovery from a serious illness, or to care for a seriously ill family member.  The emergency paid leave provisions under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA).  The emergency paid leave provisions that partially expired at the end of last year was credited with preventing covered workers from having to choose between a paycheck or health, if needing to stay home.  The lawmakers argued the provisions were too narrow, saying there is a need for a national paid leave program that extends far beyond the pandemic and that “it is a critical tool for long term economic recovery.”  The FAMILY Act is reportedly modeled on unidentified successful state programs (although a similar program has been implemented in the District of Columbia) and reflects President Biden’s campaign policy calling for a national paid family and medical leave program.  Even so, the details on how a national program would be administered at the federal level almost certainly require further study and could prove to be a limitation against wholesale passage of the legislation.  [Note:  text of the bill is not yet publicly available]

Worker Health Safety/Unemployment Claims.  On January 22, President Biden signed an Executive Order on “Economic Relief Related to the COVID-19 Pandemic.”  The language in the order is worded broadly, with government agencies being directed to “promptly identify actions they can take within existing authorities” to “improve access to, reduce unnecessary barriers to, and improve coordination among programs funded in whole or in part by the Federal Government.”  An accompanying White House fact sheet is more specific:  “Help ensure that unemployed Americans no longer have to choose between paying their bills and keeping themselves and their families safe from COVID-19 by asking the U.S. Department of Labor to consider clarifying that workers who refuse unsafe working conditions can still receive unemployment insurance.”  Notably, the still pending “unsafe workplace” definition in forthcoming guidance from the Labor Department could be complicated by dynamics between federal and state unemployment law and administration.

On Monday, February 8, The Washington Post published an article on individuals quitting their jobs due to health concerns, further spotlighting the issue in Washington.  According to the paper,

more than 1.5 million people who quit their jobs voluntarily last year and filed for unemployment insurance, according to data from the Department of Labor, more than twice the amount over the same period in 2019. Some 80 percent have had their claims denied. A separate group of 75,000 have applied for unemployment insurance after being laid off and declining to return to work; 49 percent of that group had their claims denied.”

Apprenticeship News.  On Friday, February 5, the House approved, by a vote of 247 to 173, the National Apprenticeship Act of 2021 (H.R. 447), a bill that would invest $3.5 billion in the apprenticeship system, ensure consistency and quality across apprenticeships, and expand opportunities for diverse workers in emerging sectors.  As introduced, the bill had 81 Democratic and ten Republican co-sponsors.   House Education & Labor Committee Ranking Member Virginia Foxx (R-North Carolina) issued a statement denouncing the “job killing” bill, adding, “Republicans will continue working diligently to inject innovation and flexibility into the apprenticeship model so that more Americans can get back to work.”  A House Education & Labor Committee fact sheet on the bill is available here.  H.R. 447 has been referred to the Senate for consideration. (There is no companion measure in the Senate, but efforts are underway to develop one).

Labor Congressional Committee News.  As a result of the death of Representative Ron Wright (R-Texas), due to COVID-19, an additional GOP vacancy on the House Education & Labor Committee will need to be filled, adding to two open vacancies (one Democrat and one Republican).  House Education & Labor Committee Chairman Scott announced subcommittee chairs and vice chairs on Monday.  A full list of committee and subcommittee members is available here.

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