The US National Labor Relations Board intends to take the first step toward creating a new regulation regarding the definition of “joint employers” for federal regulatory purposes by the end of this summer, NLRB Chairman John F. Ring wrote in a letter to three Senators this week. The letter to Democrats Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand, and Independent Senator Bernie Sanders, was in response to a letter the legislators had sent to the board chairman expressing their concerns about the board’s intent to introduce a new joint employer standard through the federal rulemaking process.
“A majority of the Board is committed to engage in rulemaking,” Ring wrote in the letter dated June 5, “and the NLRB will do so. Internal preparations are underway, and we are working toward issuance of a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) as soon as possible, but certainly by this summer.”
The joint employer standard, which refers to an organization’s liability for the work conditions of individuals employed by its contractors or subcontractors, was expanded considerably during the Obama administration, when the NLRB ruled in a 2015 case called Browning-Ferris that a company was to be considered a joint employer if it had “indirect” control over the subcontractor’s terms and conditions of employment or “reserved authority” to exercise such control. The board reversed that decision in the Hy-Brand case decided late last year, but vacated its Hy-Brand ruling in February after one member of the board who participated in that decision, William Emanuel, was found to have a conflict of interest.
The US Department of Homeland Security announced on Friday that it would issue an additional 15,000 H-2B visas this summer for employers to hire non-farm seasonal workers from abroad, the Wall Street Journal reported. The guest worker visa program is limited by Congress to 66,000 of the six-month visas each year, divided evenly between the summer and winter seasons. This cap has not been raised since the 1990s, but the spending bill passed by Congress in March grants Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen the discretion to issue about twice that number depending on labor market needs.
DHS also issued an additional 15,000 visas last year, but coming in July, that decision was criticized as coming too late in the season to mitigate the shortages of seasonal labor that employers in sectors like hospitality, tourism, and landscaping had complained of. The Trump administration’s anti-immigration posture and its reluctance to open up the US to more foreign workers of any kind have had an impact on these seasonal industries’ ability to fill jobs, forcing them to raise wages, scramble to find American workers, or cut back on business in response. (Critics of the H-2B program, on both the left and the right, say these employers should be paying higher wages and working harder to market these jobs to US citizens.)
This summer, the labor market in the US is as tight as it was last year, if not more so, and seasonal employers are facing a similar challenge. Candidates for seasonal positions are finding themselves with more bargaining power than they used to have, being able to demand greater flexibility and control over their schedules. Employers have reported, meanwhile, that their applications for H-2B visas are being rejected at higher rates than usual. Demand for the visas this year so greatly exceeded the cap, the department had to award them through a lottery system, making the process more unpredictable for business owners who are accustomed to using these visas regularly.
US Immigration and Customs Enforcement is conducting inspections at worksites at a rapidly accelerating pace. The agency announced last week that its Homeland Security Investigations division had already conducted more raids in the first seven months of the current fiscal year than in the entire previous year:
From Oct. 1, 2017, through May 4, HSI opened 3,510 worksite investigations; initiated 2,282 I-9 audits; and made 594 criminal and 610 administrative worksite-related arrests, respectively. In comparison, for fiscal year 2017 – running October 2016 to September 2017 – HSI opened 1,716 worksite investigations; initiated 1,360 I-9 audits; and made 139 criminal arrests and 172 administrative arrests related to worksite enforcement.
“Our worksite enforcement strategy continues to focus on the criminal prosecution of employers who knowingly break the law, and the use of I-9 audits and civil fines to encourage compliance with the law,” said Acting Executive Associate Director for HSI, Derek N. Benner. “HSI’s worksite enforcement investigators help combat worker exploitation, illegal wages, child labor and other illegal practices.”
ICE expects to have conducted over 5,500 inspections by the end of this fiscal year, Benner told the Wall Street Journal, and would ultimately like to open as many as 15,000 I-9 audits a year if funding permits. The immigration law enforcement agency had already been conducting more inspections during the last few years of the Obama administration, but this year’s recent dramatic rise reflects President Donald Trump’s policy priority of accelerating deportations and increasing the risk of detection for undocumented immigrants, the better to discourage more people from immigrating illegally.
US Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta (Shawn T Moore/Department of Labor/Flickr
Last month, Bloomberg BNA’s Ben Penn and Porter Wells reported that the US Department of Labor was planning to relax a policy put in place by the Obama administration to vigorously enforce regulations prohibiting gender pay discrimination by organizations that contract with the federal government. The department was said to be issuing new guidance to supplant a 2013 directive that had given the Office of Federal Contract Compliance a mandate to audit federal contractors for salary bias and make its own determinations as to whether workers were employed in identical or comparable roles for that purpose.
The OFCCP had used that directive to force substantial settlements from several large employers over alleged pay discrimination, and it has been at the center of the ongoing dispute between the Labor Department and Google over pay discrepancies the office has said indicate widespread discrimination (Google vigorously denies this and claims to have no statistically significant gender pay gap at all).
The new guidance, Penn and Wells explained, would “allow businesses to shape the random Labor Department audits by determining which workers investigators should be comparing for possible pay bias” instead. This change would be in keeping with Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta’s approach of assuming good faith on the part of businesses and allowing them to admit and correct compliance issues without fault rather than pursuing investigations and lawsuits. After these plans came to light, however, the department may be backtracking, Allen Smith reports at SHRM. Mickey Silberman, an attorney with Fortney & Scott in Denver, tells Smith that the OFCCP, Labor Department, and various stakeholders are now discussing the proposed changes.
In its latest regulatory agenda, the US Department of Labor announced its intent to issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for a new overtime salary threshold sometime next January. The Trump administration had first signaled its interest in rewriting the overtime rule last July, when the Justice Department expressed that intent in a court filing and the Labor Department issued a request for comments from the public—the first step in the federal government’s rulemaking process.
A new overtime rule issued by the Obama administration in 2016 raised the salary threshold at which employees are exempt from overtime pay from $23,660 to $47,476, but was blocked from going into effect by the courts and ultimately overturned by a federal judge in Texas last September, who found that the department had erred in setting the new rules for overtime eligibility based on salaries alone and not job descriptions.
The Labor Department appealed that judgment, not because it intends to maintain the previous administration’s rule, but rather out of concern that the ruling would hinder its ability to rewrite it. Current Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta had been critical of his predecessor’s decision to raise the threshold dramatically, indicating in his confirmation hearing last year that he thought an increase was needed but that doubling it all at once would put undue stress on the economy.
Employers may have hoped for a slightly speedier regulatory process, SHRM’s Lisa Nagele-Piazza reports, but now can likely expect a final new rule within two years, giving them plenty of time to prepare for what will probably be a less onerous new standard than the Obama administration’s:
The US Department of Labor under President Donald Trump and Secretary Alexander Acosta has been working over the past year to undo the regulations implemented by the Obama administration regarding the definition of “joint employers.” Acosta, like many employers and business associations, considers the previous administration’s standard too broad.
Now, the National Labor Relations Board is weighing a rulemaking process to update the standard, the board announced on Wednesday:
“Whether one business is the joint employer of another business’s employees is one of the most critical issues in labor law today,” says NLRB Chairman John F. Ring. “The current uncertainty over the standard to be applied in determining joint-employer status under the Act undermines employers’ willingness to create jobs and expand business opportunities. In my view, notice-and-comment rulemaking offers the best vehicle to fully consider all views on what the standard ought to be.”
Acosta’s Labor Department rescinded Obama-era guidelines on the joint employer standard last June, while the National Labor Relations Board’s regional directors were instructed in December to slow enforcement of the Obama administration’s standard. Shortly thereafter, the NLRB overturned its ruling in the landmark Browning-Ferris case, in which it had considered a company to be a joint employer with a subcontractor if it exercised “indirect” control over the terms and conditions of employment or had the “reserved authority to do so.”
Bilal Aliyar m/Shutterstock
More H-1B visas are being granted to US tech companies, whereas India-based outsourcing firms are receiving fewer of them, according to an analysis of government data on 2017 H-1B allocations from the National Foundation for American Policy. This trend, the NFAP argues in its policy brief, “reflect[s] the strong demand for high-skilled talent” in the US and “would appear to undermine the argument that the federal government should impose new restrictions on H-1B visas.”
The Trump administration has indeed been determined to restrict the use of these visas, which are awarded to highly skilled foreign workers to fill gaps in the US labor market, as part of President Donald Trump’s overall anti-immigration posture. While only an act of Congress can fundamentally restructure of the program and Trump’s desired rule changes have not yet been enacted, the administration has subtly undermined it by suspending premium processing two years in a row, tightening approval standards, and proposing to end work authorization for H-4 visa holders, the spouses of H-1B workers (a plan the administration reaffirmed this week).
It is difficult to say with certainty, however, whether the shift observed in the NFAP’s research is a rebuke of the Trump administration’s crackdown or a consequence of it. It may reflect the changing strategies of major Indian outsourcing companies since Trump’s election, which portended a change in H-1B policy and made it riskier for these firms to rely on the visas. Infosys, India’s second-largest IT services and outsourcing company and one of the leading users H-1Bs, announced plans last year to hire 10,000 US citizen employees and open new innovation hubs throughout the US. Infosys said at the time that this decision predated the Trump administration, but it still serves to guard against a scenario in which the supply of H-1B visas was curtailed.
Some observers see the gravitation of H-1Bs away from outsourcing companies as a response to the Trump administration’s policies, or even a sign that these policies are working. Axios’s Stef Kight captured both sides of the debate in her reporting: