Should US employers still be rejecting candidates or firing employees for using marijuana? Maybe not, US Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta suggested in comments to Congress this week, according to Politico’s Morning Shift:
Acosta said Tuesday that employers should rethink the practice of drug testing every job applicant, which he suggested could keep qualified people out of the workforce. Acosta’s remarks came in response to a question from Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) during a House Ways and Means Committee hearing. Blumenauer, who’s from a state that legalized recreational marijuana, said he’s concerned that legal pot shows up “in ways that are disqualifying” on drug tests, and asked Acosta what could be done to “unleash” those workers’ potential.
“There are sometimes valid health and safety reasons why an individual that cannot pass a drug test shouldn’t hold a certain job,” Acosta said. However, he also said some employers “make the assumption that because there’s a negative result on a test they would not be a good employee.”
Acosta was testifying in a hearing on Jobs and Opportunity: Federal Perspectives on the Jobs Gap, part of a series of hearings the committee is holding as it prepares to reauthorize the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. While the secretary did not say in so many words that employers should stop drug testing their employees, he expressed the opinion that “it’s important to take a step back … and ask, are we aligning our drug policies and our drug testing policies with what’s right for the workforce?”
Blumenauer’s question to Acosta and the secretary’s less-than-categorical answer both reflect the significant degree to which employers are being forced to rethink their drug policies in light of changing attitudes toward cannabis and the growing number of jurisdictions where it has been decriminalized or legalized for either medicinal or recreational uses. Businesses have begun lobbying the Trump administration to issue guidelines on how to navigate the conflict between federal drug laws—under which marijuana is still classified as a Schedule I substance along with heroin, ecstasy, and LSD—and increasingly liberal state laws.
Last month, the US Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour division announced that it was preparing a six-month pilot of the Payroll Audit Independent Determination (PAID) program, to launch this month, which will allow employers to self-report potential overtime and minimum wage violations under the Fair Labor Standards Act and resolve them by paying employees the back wages they are owed, avoiding additional fines and the expensive and time-consuming process of litigation. A similar program was offered under the Bush administration during the 2000s, but the Wage and Hour division took a more aggressive enforcement approach under former President Barack Obama, often assessing double damages.
Wage and hour disputes already being litigated or investigated are not eligible for resolution through the PAID program, nor can employers use it to resolve the same violation twice. Advocates of the PAID program consider it a win-win for employers and employees, allowing underpaid workers to be made whole much more quickly, without having to pay attorney fees. Critics, however, say it goes against the division’s role as an enforcer of employment law and lets unscrupulous employers off the hook, while also expressing concern over having voluntary self-audits take the place of Labor Department investigations.
Among those critics are a number of state attorneys general, who co-signed a letter sent by New York’s Attorney General Eric Schneiderman on Wednesday to Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta informing him that they had serious concerns about the PAID program and would not refrain from pursuing wage and hour investigations under state law against employers who participate in it:
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The application period for H-1B temporary skilled worker visas came and went last week, with US Citizenship and Immigration Services reaching its petition cap this year within five days of the application period opening on April 2, CNet reported on Friday. In a process that has become commonplace in recent years, demand for the 85,000 highly-coveted visas issued each year quickly surpassed the number available, prompting USCIS to stop accepting applications. The visas will be awarded by lottery and the recipients will be eligible to come to the US and start working in October.
Nobody is particularly in favor of the H-1B lottery system. Advocates of a more liberal immigration policy consider the annual limit arbitrary and far too low, as in this statement reported by CNet:
“That’s it for the entire year for our nation’s ability to bring in the best and brightest individuals through the H-1B program to come create American jobs,” Todd Schulte, president of FWD.us, a US lobby in favor of immigration reform, said in a statement. “In addition to forcing us to miss out on the creation of American jobs, these arbitrary limits will stifle medical innovation and wage growth, and will hurt our economy.”
At the other end of the spectrum, however, are critics who say the US issues too many of these visas and is insufficiently selective in how it awards them, such as President Donald Trump, who rode into Washington last year vowing to reform the H-1B system as part of a broader effort to reduce both legal and illegal immigration to the US. In his “Buy American, Hire American” executive order issued a year ago, Trump called for changes to the program to crack down on what he described as fraud and abuse, and advocated awarding the visas based on merit rather than by a random lottery.
Nonetheless, the Wall Street Journal reports, this round of H-1B applications visas is being distributed without the major changes Trump has requested.
In what looks like the Trump administration’s latest effort to tighten the US border by subjecting entrants to greater scrutiny, the State Department announced in the Federal Register on Friday that it was proposing to require that people seeking both immigrant and non-immigrant visas provide consular officials with additional information, including their social media accounts from the past five years, Ana Campoy reports at Quartz:
“This is an indirect way that the Trump administration is trying to limit immigration to the US that does not require for them to go to Congress,” said Stephen Yale-Loehr, an immigration law professor at Cornell University, of the proposed rules.
The US had already been requesting social-media information from people suspected to represent a national security threat. That policy targeted a sliver of travelers to the US—about 65,000. The new measures would cover nearly 15 million people. Along with the handles, the State Department is also asking for a five-year history of email addresses, telephone numbers, and international trips.
The proposals must be approved by the Office of Management and Budget after a 60-day public comment period, so these new requirements will not come into effect until this summer at the earliest, but if they do, Campoy surmises, it may make some people think twice about traveling to the US. The American Civil Liberties Union issued a statement condemning the proposals as “ineffective and deeply problematic”:
The exclusion of measures to stabilize the health insurance marketplace from the omnibus spending package passed last week by the US Congress has revived concerns about sharp premium increases next year in both the individual and group health insurance markets.
A bipartisan plan had been in the works to add such measures to the spending bill, including four years of funding for the cost-sharing reduction (CSR) subsidies prescribed in the Affordable Care Act, billions of dollars in reinsurance funding to help insurance plans cover high-cost patients, and a provision opening up low-cost, catastrophic insurance plans to buyers over 30, Vox health care analyst Sarah Kliff explained last week. Negotiations broke down, however, after Democrats balked at Republicans’ insistence on including these limited-coverage plans in the legislation and reintroducing a ban on providing reinsurance funds to any insurance policy that covers abortion.
As a result, Jeri Clausing reports at Employee Benefit News, benefits experts and employers are now expecting premium hikes of as much as 30 percent in 2019. While the policies in question mainly concern the individual insurance market, the resulting cost issues stand to affect employer-sponsored health coverage as well:
“Destabilization increases uncompensated care, resulting in cost-shifting from healthcare providers to large employer payers,” Ilyse Schuman, senior vice president of health policy for the American Benefits Council, said earlier this month. …
Two civil rights groups are suing the Trump administration for documents regarding its decision to halt a rule proposed under the Obama administration that would have required businesses to submit payroll data to the government to identify gender-based and racial pay inequities, The Hill reported on Wednesday:
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) filed a lawsuit against the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) on Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The 15-page complaint alleges OMB violated the Freedom of Information Act when it failed to respond to five requests the groups sent in September for records on the agency’s decision to shut down the pay data collection rule.
The rule, proposed by former President Barack Obama in 2016, would require organizations with more than 100 employees to submit summary pay data to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission each year showing what employees of each gender, race, and ethnicity earn. The rationale behind the regulation was that it would help the EEOC identify discriminatory pay practices and discourage companies from engaging in them.
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For the second year in a row, US Citizenship and Immigration Services has suspended premium processing for all cap-subject petitions for H-1B visas during the filing season for fiscal year 2019, which begins on April 2, Roy Maurer reports at SHRM:
“Premium processing will be delayed … to give USCIS sufficient time to take in the expected large numbers of filings,” said Scott J. FitzGerald, a partner in the Boston office of the global immigration law firm Fragomen. “We do not anticipate that this will delay notification of whether such cases have been selected in the H-1B lottery. Instead, this will delay the time in which the case is approved, subject to a request for evidence, or denied.” …
“The fact that USCIS is only now finishing up its processing of H-1B cap cases filed at this time last year is absolutely unprecedented,” FitzGerald said. “These delays are presumably related to the substantial increase in the issuance of RFEs for those cases. The fact that these cases, filed under regular processing, are receiving final determinations almost a year after they have been filed and almost five months after the requested start date [Oct. 1] is disappointing and seems a clear reflection of the agency’s new and tougher mission statement.”
Quartz’s Ananya Bhattacharya adds that the suspension will likely have a negative impact on the India-based outsourcing firms like Infosys and Tata Consultancy Services that are the most extensive users of the H-1B program, as well as the Silicon Valley tech companies that count on skilled foreign workers hired on these visas to meet their insatiable demand for talent.