From our Capital Thinking blog, our public policy colleague Stacy Swanson shares the latest federal employment law developments in in the legislative and executive branches during the week of August 9, 2021.
This is a weekly post spotlighting labor topics in focus by the US legislative and executive branches during the previous week. In this issue, we cover:
- COVID-19 Updates
- Build Back Better Updates
- Republicans Spotlight Inflation and Effect on Paychecks
- Democrats Introduce Legislation to Improve Nursing Homes for Residents and Workers
- NLRB GC Unveils Priorities
- Labor Department Moves to Modernize UI Technology
- USMCA Labor Dispute Resolved
- Mexico Gender Equity Grant Funding Opportunity
- South American Fishing Industry Grant Funding Opportunity
- Northern Triangle Grant Funding Opportunity
The U.S. Senate was in session again this week; the chamber recessed on Wednesday until September 13. The U.S. House of Representatives remained in recess, but is now set to return to Washington the week of August 23.
On Sunday, August 8, the Senate voted 68 to 29 vote to end debate on the bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill. Prior to the vote, Senators spent the weekend trying to negotiate amendments changing the infrastructure bill’s cryptocurrency regulations and allowing coronavirus aid money to be spent on infrastructure. The Senate approved its Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (H.R. 3684) on Tuesday in a 69 to 30 vote, sending the bill to the House.
Senate Democrats also released a $3.5 trillion budget resolution on Monday, their blueprint for a reconciliation bill that includes their healthcare and social spending priorities. The Senate approved the budget resolution on Wednesday along a party-line vote of 50 to 49. Senate committees have until September 15 to draft their portions of the $3.5 trillion package.
Notably, a group of moderate House Democratic lawmakers is reportedly prepared to vote against the budget resolution, unless Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-California) first schedules a vote on the Senate bipartisan infrastructure bill. Due to the narrow majority margin in the House, Speaker Pelosi can lose no more than three Democratic votes. Progressive House Members, however, are threatening to vote against the infrastructure bill if it is brought to the floor before the Senate has approved its version of the reconciliation bill.
COVID-19 Updates. U.S. employers are increasingly starting to mandate vaccinations, ahead of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) anticipated full approval of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. President Biden met virtually with business, university, and health care leaders on Wednesday to discuss their decisions to require COVID-19 vaccinations. He expressed optimism that additional employers would follow suit. Meanwhile, on Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released data that reflected the nationwide COVID positive-test rate in America declined during the week that ended this past Monday, breaking an upward trend fueled by the Delta variant.
On Monday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said in a Memorandum to Defense Department employees that he would “seek the president’s approval to make the vaccines mandatory no later than mid-September, or immediately upon the U.S. Food and Drug Administration licensure, whichever comes first.” On Thursday, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra announced the Department would require more than 25,000 members of its health care workforce be vaccinated against COVID-19.
The CDC Vaccine Advisory Panel met on Thursday to discuss COVID-19 vaccine booster shots for immunocompromised people. The FDA issued a statement later that day recommending additional doses of Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna vaccines only for this category of Americans.
Build Back Better Agenda Updates. U.S. President Joe Biden continued to focus this week on his Build Back Better agenda, touting the bipartisan infrastructure bill as one piece and advocating for enactment of the larger reconciliation package to address other elements of his plan. In remarks on Wednesday, the President spoke of monitoring inflation and addressing increasing gas prices. U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris met on Thursday with business leaders to discuss how the care provisions in the Build Back Better agenda will help workers, businesses, and the economy. Seeking to increase awareness of and public support for the Build Back Better agenda, the White House released a number of fact sheets on Friday focused on highlighted benefits to American Families and Communities; Black Communities; Latino Communities; Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Communities; and Rural Communities.
In a speech on Monday at the University of Maryland, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke of American competitiveness, calling for a “domestic renewal” of investments before “making more trade deals.” He called for the President’s “generational investment,” saying it would make the U.S. competitive “in the 21st-century global economy from a position of strength.” He added:
We will keep faith with American workers; shape the terms of global trade; ensure that labor, environmental, and intellectual property standards are protected; and stand with our allies and partners when others seek to take advantage of them.”
Republicans Spotlight Inflation and Effect on Paychecks. On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Labor reported that its consumer price index (CPI) rose 5.4 percent in July from a year earlier. The CPI, an inflation gauge, measures changes in how much American consumers pay for everyday goods and services including groceries, gasoline, clothes, restaurant meals, and automobiles. Core inflation, which excludes energy and food, rose by 0.3 percent last month, shy of a forecasted 0.4 percent increase, yet below June’s rise of 0.9 percent. The core figure is up 4.3 percent over the last year.
House Ways & Means Ranking Member Kevin Brady (R-Texas) said after the July CPI report was released:
For the seventh straight month of the Biden presidency paychecks have been shrinking. There’s no end in sight since the President and congressional Democrats want to pour another $4.5 trillion dollars of government spending that will fuel higher inflation. Rising prices on gas and groceries are wiping out wage gains, and leaving working families behind.”
Democrats Introduce Legislation to Improve Nursing Homes for Residents and Workers. On August 10, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), Senate Aging Committee Chairman Bob Casey (D-Pennsylvania), along with Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut), Michael Bennet (D-Colorado), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island), and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), introduced legislation to update federal nursing home policy to improve quality of care and oversight. The Nursing Home Improvement and Accountability Act would address filling much-needed gaps in staffing, transparency, accountability, oversight, and the structure and culture of nursing home facilities to ensure they are better prepared to face future public health emergencies. Among other things, the bill would require nursing homes meet minimum staffing standards, ensure a Registered Nurse (RN) is available 24 hours a day, require a full-time infection control and prevention specialist and provide additional resources through Medicaid to support care and staffing improvements and raise wages. A summary of the bill is available here and a section-by-section summary of the bill here.
NLRB GC Unveils Priorities. On August 12, National Labor Review Board (NLRB) General Counsel (GC) Jennifer Abruzzo circulated her first Memorandum, outlining her priorities for all Regional Directors, Officers-in-Charge, and Resident Officers. A related NLRB press release noted the Memorandum has three sections that focus on (1) cases and subject matter areas where, in the last several years, the Board overruled legal precedent; (2) other initiatives and areas that the General Counsel wants to carefully examine; and (3) other case-handling matters traditionally submitted to Advice. In the second part of the Memorandum, Ms. Abruzzo outlines some subject areas that she would like to examine, including cases involving Weingarten rights, employee status, mutual aid or protection, and employer duty to recognize and bargain. While Ms. Abruzzo refrains from stating a position in the Memorandum, she is expected to advocate for worker-friendly interpretations of the National Labor Relations Act and likely will target Trump-era decisions.
Labor Department Moves to Modernize UI Technology. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Wyden issued a statement on August 11 welcoming the U.S. Department of Labor’s action to update unemployment insurance (UI) technology. He stated:
I’m glad to see the Labor Department using the funding Democrats secured for unemployment insurance administration to modernize technology, fight fraud and better serve jobless workers. The Department’s plan for these funds includes important components of my Unemployment Insurance Technology Modernization Act that will start to bring unemployment insurance technology into the 21st century and move toward unifying the 53 separate state systems. This funding will help prevent inexcusable wait times for benefits that millions of workers experienced during the pandemic, while also strengthening the system against attacks from organized criminal networks seeking to defraud the program and steal from taxpayers.”
House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-Massachusetts) also welcomed the Labor Department’s move.
USMCA Labor Dispute Resolved. On Tuesday, 10 August, the United States and a Mexican auto parts facility reached an agreement to address allegations filed under the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement’s (USMCA) dispute settlement provisions regarding employees at the Tridonex facility in Matamoros, State of Tamaulipas. The U.S. alleged workers were being denied the rights of free association and collective bargaining. U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh said of the agreement reached:
It also signals to workers here at home and around the world that the U.S. Government is committed to taking decisive steps to defend workers’ rights and ensure that the benefits of trade are enjoyed by all workers.”
U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai added:
This result is another important example of [the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative’s] worker-centered trade policy in practice and I commend the company and the Government of Mexico for working constructively to achieve this important outcome.”
Details on the agreement are accessible here.
House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Neal and Trade Subcommittee Chairman Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon) applauded the agreement under the USMCA Rapid Response Mechanism. They stated Democrats are “safeguarding worker rights and holding our trading partners accountable for the commitments they have made.”
Mexico Gender Equity Grant Funding Opportunity. On Tuesday, the Labor Department announced its intent to award up to $10 million in grant funding to improve gender equity in the Mexican workplace. Additional details on this funding opportunity are available here.
South American Fishing Industry Grant Funding Opportunity. On Wednesday, the Labor Department announced the availability of up to $5 million in grant funding aimed at strengthening decent work for laborers in South America’s fishing industries. The funding opportunity seeks to address violations of the right to freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining; strengthen prohibitions against discrimination at work; eliminate forced and child labor; and promote acceptable conditions of work with respect to minimum wages, hours of work and occupational safety and health. Details on requirements and how to apply can be viewed here.
Northern Triangle Grant Funding Opportunity. On Thursday, the Labor Department announced a funding opportunity of up to $5 million in grants to improve workers’ ability to exercise their labor rights in the agricultural supply chains in Guatemala and Honduras and the textile/apparel – or maquila – sector of El Salvador. Additional details on this opportunity is accessible here.
This funding opportunity will finance a project that is part of a $20 million commitment announced two weeks ago to promote respect for and compliance with labor rights in the Northern Triangle region. Collectively, these programs are part of the Biden Administration’s Root Causes of Migration Strategy that was released in July.