Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Wild Weeks for Workers in Washington

May 19th, 2004 | Paula Brantner

After weeks of relative quiet in our nation’s capital, at least when it came to workplace issues, those in Washington have been very busy in the last two weeks doing all kinds of things that could affect the workplace in the months and years to come. Whether it’s overtime, judicial nominations, or unemployment benefits, what’s happening now will undoubtedly have an impact on the American worker.

Overtime

As recently reported here, the Department of Labor released its final version of changes to overtime regulations in late April, with the changes slated to go into effect on August 23. When the changes were first released, many questioned whether some of the positive adjustments made from the Administration’s initial proposal would be enough to satisfy critics of the policy. It appears not: while the proposal was significantly improved from its first iteration, it remains problematic and destined to deny workers who now count on overtime the ability to collect overtime in the future.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), who has been spearheading the fight against the new overtime regulations, chose to continue the fight before the Senate. On May 5, the Senate voted 52-47 to prevent the new regulations from going into effect. (See CNN.com article.) This vote came after a failed Republican effort, led by Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH) to blunt the impact of the changes by guaranteeing that certain professions would not be affected. That proposal passed 99-0, but was nonetheless deemed insufficient by the Senate majority who supported the Harkin proposal. While it protected a total of 55 job categories at risk under the Department of Labor’s revised proposal, there were another 834 job classifications that remain at risk without specific guarantees of protection.

Things did not proceed so smoothly in the House, however: on two different occasions in the past week, the House has tackled this issue, and despite successful efforts opposing overtime changes a few months ago in the House, this time, the measures failed to pass on two separate occasions. The most recent vote, which took place on Tuesday, May 18, was 216-199 in opposition to Rep. George Miller’s (D-CA) proposal which would require the Labor Department to retain the eligibility of all workers who currently qualify for overtime pay. (See San Francisco Chronicle article.)

So unless something changes in the next few months, the overtime proposal will go into effect in August. However, it being an election year, anything can happen, and what should happen is that the working public speaks out and lets their members of Congress (especially members of the House who are all running for re-election) just how important this issue is.

Extension of Unemployment Benefits

Another hot-button issue in this election year is whether Congress will move to extend unemployment benefits for those who have exhausted their benefits, in an economy where many workers are staying unemployed for longer periods than ever before. It was recently reported that in January 2004, more individuals than ever during the entire 30-year history of reported data exhausted their benefits that month. (See Alameda Times-Star article.) On May 11, the Senate tried to extend benefits, but ultimately came up short: one vote short. The measure to extend benefits actually commended a 59-40 majority, with several Republicans crossing over to support the bill, but 60 votes were needed to overcome Republican objections that the proposal violated last year’s budget resolution. The one missing vote out of 100 senators: Sen. John Kerry, who was on the campaign trail. Democrats charged the vote was a political stunt designed to embarrass Kerry, as several Republicans were reportedly poised to change sides if the bill appeared likely to pass. (See The Hill article.) While supporters vowed to bring the bill to the floor again this year, it remains to be seen what, if any, progress will be made on this issue, given its volatility in an election year. It also remains to be seen whether the voters will blame President Bush’s stewardship of the economy or challenger Kerry’s failure to cast a vote.

JOBS Bill

Yet another recent Congressional vote which could affect workers is the corporate tax measure known in the Senate as the JOBS (Jumpstart Our Business Strength) bill, S. 1637. While the primary purpose of the bill was to ensure the United States did not continue to be fined for its export rules, and that manufacturers affected by the change in tariffs received a tax break instead, the final version contained a large (pork) barrel-full of provisions destined to please almost everyone. The good news is that thanks to NELA’s leadership, the JOBS bill contains a provision that would prevent the taxation of attorneys fees, one of the three key provisions of the Civil Rights Tax Relief Act (HR 1155/S 557) The bill now goes to the House for consideration, as legislators sort through the hundreds of pages of amendments to determine what will make the cut. Some version of the bill is likely to pass, hopefully sooner rather than later, so that the U.S. does not face billions in fines from the World Trade Organization. However, it remains to be seen whether all the additional provisions will be retained by the House.

Judicial Nominations

Workers and their advocates will also need to pay attention to the number of new judges who will soon reach the federal bench as a result of a deal struck in Washington this week. The Senate had been at an impasse when it came to confirming judicial nominees (or any presidential nominees, for that matter), after Sen. Tom Daschle (D-SD) refused to let any nominees come to the Senate floor. Daschle adopted this strategy after President Bush made his second recess appointment to put William Pryor on the 11th Circuit bench, after making a similar appointment of Charles Pickering to the 5th Circuit bench in January. Both Pryor and Pickering were extremely controversial nominees whose nominations had been successfully stalled in the Senate before the President used his appointment power to temporarily install both men on their respective benches, hoping that their lifetime appointment would be easier to attain after both were already serving on their respective courts. However, a deal was struck this week, where the President agrees not to make any more recess appointments of controversial nominees, and the Democrats agree to go ahead allow votes on 25 nominees deemed “non-controversial” to proceed sooner rather than later. (See Reuters article, and Sen. Leahy’s Statement for the list of 25 nominees affected by the deal.)

Unfortunately, one nominee that should have been given a little more scrutiny before being added to the “non-controversial” category is Diane Sykes, who NELA and other civil rights groups have chosen to strongly oppose for her consistent opposition to the rights of employees and individual citizens. (See NELA Position Statement.) It is now anticipated that votes on the remaining controversial nominees, which include Carolyn Kuhl, Priscilla Owen, Brett Kavanaugh, and Janice Rogers Brown will take place after Labor Day, when both sides can attempt to spotlight their differing approaches in close proximity to the November election.

Congress will spend the next week on its Memorial Day recess, so we’ll have a breather, but it should be an interesting summer as legislators position themselves for this fall’s election. So hang on, as it is likely to continue to be a wild ride for a while.

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