In a historic change, the US Senate voted last week to allow members to bring their babies into the chamber. The new rule was prompted by the birth of Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth’s second daughter on April 9. Duckworth, the first sitting senator to give birth, said the vote would “bring the Senate into the 21st century,” making the historically male-dominated chamber a more welcoming workplace for women and new parents, the Associated Press reported on Wednesday.
No Senators objected to the rule change, but effecting it still took some convincing. Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar told the AP that she had spent nearly two months “privately reassuring Republicans and Democrats that the new rule would not mean diaper-changing or nursing in the Senate chamber.” Quartz’s Heather Timmons followed up with Klobuchar about the questions she had fielded from her colleagues:
Will there be an infant dress code?
“No, we’re not going to have a dress code for the baby,” Klobuchar said. While that sounds off the wall, what women wear in the Senate in particular has been closely policed—it was not until the early 1990s that pant suits were allowed.
Can’t Duckworth just vote from the Senate cloak room, while holding her baby?
Both Republicans and Democrats have a room, originally quite literally a room for cloaks, that is outside the Senate chamber, where a small handful of aides sit to keep senators informed of voting. The chamber was built in 1859, and the cloakroom is difficult to access from the outside for Duckworth, who lost both her legs when she served in the Iraq war. “She can’t get from there to the floor without a wheelchair,” Klobuchar said, and she has to go across the floor to get into it anyway.
Duckworth and Klobuchar are both Democrats, but support for the rule change came from both male and female Senators across party lines. Although some of the men in the chamber expressed concerns about babies violating the Senate’s decorum, most were on board. “Why would I object to it? We have plenty of babies on the floor,” Florida Senator Marco Rubio joked.
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. …
When the US Department of Labor proposed a new rule in December concerning the treatment of tips under the Fair Labor Standards Act, the proposal drew fire from critics who said it effectively permitted employers such as restaurants to withhold their employees tips. The regulation, which would only apply to employers who pay a full minimum wage and do not take a tip credit, would allow these employers to require that tips be pooled and shared with back-of-house staff who do not traditionally receive direct tips, such as restaurant cooks and dishwashers—a practice banned by the Obama administration.
A stipulation in the regulation that managers could use pooled tip money to make structural improvements, like expanding the dining area, or to lower menu prices, led employee advocates to argue that it would result in many tips not accruing to employees at all. The Labor Department publicly contended that these fears were baseless, but last month, an internal analysis of the proposal’s impact came to light, showing that employees could indeed lose out on billions of dollars in tips. Senior officials in the department shelved the analysis and ordered staff to revise their methodology to produce a more favorable result. The revelation cast doubt on the future of the rule and led to calls from members of Congress to discard it and warnings from state attorneys general that the department may have broken the law in rolling out the proposal.
The rule is still pending, but now, if it does come into effect, it will do so with its critics’ main objection addressed.
The Trump administration and the Republican leadership in the US Congress intend to take up the issue of the gig economy this spring and propose labor law reforms to address the unique circumstances of this segment of the workforce, Sean Higgins reports at the Washington Examiner:
The big issue: When do workers for those companies stop being contractors and become employees? Business groups are eager to limit those circumstances, which the Obama administration and court rulings have chipped away at. The Trump [administration] will offer its take when the Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes its Contingent Worker Survey in the spring that will offer new data on workers doing short-term, nonsalaried “gig” jobs. …
A source in the Labor Department who requested anonymity said the study probably will be published in April. It will become a springboard for legislation to clarify a host of issues, including potentially the most controversial one: the contractor-or-employee issue. … The Trump administration has been tight-lipped on its plans, saying only that it wants to modernize the rules.
The Contingent Worker Supplement to the Current Population Survey was reintroduced during the Obama administration by former Labor Secretary Tom Perez in January 2016. Independent estimates of the size of the alternative workforce in the US vary dramatically, whereas the dearth of official data has limited policy makers’ ability to address the challenges created by the advent of the gig economy.
Speaking at an event in October, Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta expressed support for overhauling US employment laws to account for the advent of the gig economy and the changing relationship between workers and employers. The government needs to “keep pace with the pace of change in the private sector” and “re-examine the rules that regulate the employer-employee relationships that have an impact on the ability of individuals to work in a modern system,” Acosta said.
The Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Harassment Act of 2017, a bipartisan bill recently introduced in the Senate by Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Republican Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, would as its title suggests would bar employers from enforcing mandatory arbitration clauses on employees who come forward with sexual harassment claims. These controversial clauses in employment contracts, which require employees to resolve disputes with their employer in arbitration rather than in court, have been criticized as an impediment to victims speaking out and even more disconcertingly, as tools for silencing victims and letting harassers avoid accountability.
Microsoft on Tuesday publicly announced that it was supporting the bill, with President and Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith writing at the company’s blog:
Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve learned more about the provisions of this bill and the issues it will address. When I recently met with Senator Graham on Capitol Hill to discuss cybersecurity and immigration issues, he followed those topics with a compelling appeal that we consider this new legislation. As he pointed out, as many as 60 million Americans today have no legal ability to bring a sexual harassment claim in court because they work under an employment contract that requires that all such claims be subject exclusively to private arbitration.
Microsoft is also changing its own arbitration policies in line with it support for this legislation, Smith added, acknowledging that “we have contractual clauses requiring pre-dispute arbitration for harassment claims in employment agreements for a small segment of our employee population” and announcing that effective immediately, these clauses are waived.
As Smith notes, the tech giant has been studying the bill for several weeks, but the announcement happens to come in the wake of new revelations about past allegations of sexual harassment and assault at Microsoft and how the company handled them, which were reported at Bloomberg last week after they came to light in files unsealed in an ongoing class-action lawsuit alleging that Microsoft discriminates against women.
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Late last week, Republicans in the US Senate and House of Representatives both passed versions of a comprehensive tax reform bill whose signature feature is a hefty cut in the corporate tax rate, from 35 to 20 percent. The bill, which received no Democratic votes in either house of Congress, now goes to conference, where lawmakers from both chambers will attempt to reconcile the two bills. Significant differences still exist between the two versions, however, and the Senate bill underwent a number of hasty revisions at the last minute before being passed in the middle of Friday night. It is therefore still uncertain whether Republican lawmakers will be able to agree on an identical bill that can pass both the Senate and the House.
Both versions of the bill have major implications for employers, beyond the tax breaks for businesses. Together, the bills touch on health insurance, retirement plans, and other employee benefits, but do so in different ways. SHRM’s Government Affairs team prepared a handy chart comparing the bills’ employer implications side-by-side, while Stephen Miller gives a comprehensive rundown of the differences:
Tuition Benefits: The House bill would eliminate the employer-provided education assistance deduction under Internal Revenue Code Section 127, which allows employers to provide up to $5,250 of tax-free tuition aid to an employee per year at the undergraduate, graduate or certificate level. The Senate version does not eliminate the education assistance deduction. …
Individual Health Coverage: The Senate’s bill would effectively repeal the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA’s) individual mandate, which requires most Americans to have health insurance, by reducing to zero the tax penalty for going without coverage. The House bill leaves the individual mandate in place.…
Five US lawmakers, including four Republicans and one Democrat, have introduced a bill that would change the National Labor Relations Board’s definition of “joint employers,” reversing a policy pursued by the previous administration to broaden the scope of joint employer liability. This reversal would make organizations less vulnerable to litigation related to wage and hour violations by intermediaries such as franchisees, contractors, or temp agencies, Allen Smith explains at SHRM:
The Save Local Business Act would amend the National Labor Relations Act to state, “A person may be considered a joint employer in relation to an employee only if such person directly, actually, and immediately, and not in a limited and routine manner, exercises significant control over the essential terms and conditions of employment (including hiring employees; discharging employees; determining individual employee rates of pay and benefits; day-to-day supervision of employees; assigning individual work schedules, positions and tasks; and administering employee discipline).”
The NLRB’s Browning-Ferris decision in 2015 established a precedent for “joint employer” to include entities with which a business has indirect control, or a horizontal relationship, making them responsible for franchisees’ or contractors’ compliance with the Fair Labor Standards Act and other employee protection laws. Previously, a company was only liable for those under its direct control—a standard to which this bill would return.