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Increased Enforcement of Labor Laws a Top Priority for Obama Administration

One of the clearest indications of an administration’s priorities is the budget and the amount of funding provided to various programs. Budgets always have winners and losers and reflect the degree to which programs will be implemented. A review of President Barack Obama’s proposed budget and recent agency actions demonstrates that increased enforcement of labor laws is a priority.

Agency budgets
The proposed budget for the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) states: “For the past eight years, the department’s labor law enforcement agencies have struggled with growing workloads and shrinking staff. The president’s budget seeks to reverse this trend.” The President has proposed $13.3 billion for the DOL, an increase of 4.7 percent. Funding also will be increased for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Wage and Hour Division (WHD), and the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP).

For OSHA, money is directed toward increased enforcement of workplace safety laws and whistleblower protections. Likewise, funding would be increased for the Wage and Hour Division to ensure workers get the wages owed to them and for the OFCCP to pursue equal employment opportunities. Other budget priorities for the DOL include:

  • reforming the unemployment insurance system program to make it more accessible to unemployed workers and ensure its financial integrity;
  • providing more support for federal workforce training programs to help Americans find and retain stable, high-paying jobs; and
  • establishing automatic workplace pensions and modifying the saver’s credit.

In addition, the proposed budget would increase spending for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, border patrol, and E-Verify. Currently, $110 million is proposed to expand the E-Verify system. Though both houses of Congress will be able to write their own appropriations bills in the coming month to modify the President’s proposal, lawmakers have already signaled they will make workplace safety and enforcement of workplace laws a priority.

Because of a spike in job bias and discrimination claims, employers need to pay careful attention to workplace laws. Below, we briefly explain the budget tools that are being used to fund these important policy decisions.

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Budget tools
The federal government’s budget typically is prepared for each fiscal year that commences on October 1. For current fiscal year 2009, which runs from October 1, 2008, through September 30, 2009, the Democratic-controlled Congress didn’t pass the budget proposed by former President George W. Bush. Instead of a new budget, a continuing resolution was adopted by Congress that required that the federal agencies continue operating on the same budget as was used the prior fiscal year. To change the funding from the current levels established in the continuing resolution, Congress must pass a budget for the remainder of the current fiscal year, through September 30, 2009. The Obama administration’s fiscal year 2009 budget starts with the initial proposal from the Bush administration and then modifies those spending amounts within the budget’s limits.

The budget for fiscal year 2010, which commences October 1, 2009, will be the first budget that bears the full signature of the Obama administration. It’s anticipated that the budget will continue to shift more resources for workforce enforcement matters.

Another key tool in the budget process that may or may not be used is a budget shortcut known as “budget reconciliation,” which is used to enact temporary measures. The passage of a budget reconciliation bill requires only 51 votes in the Senate — a simple majority — because reconciliation bills aren’t subject to the filibuster rules that govern most bills, including the budget, which requires 60 votes. The question is whether the Democratic majority will use the budget reconciliation process to enact expanded health coverage or changes to greenhouse gas regulations, which are some of the most controversial programs the Obama administration wants to introduce. The primary limits on the use of reconciliation bills are political considerations because the bills enacted through the reconciliation process typically don’t garner bipartisan support.

The selective use of reconciliation bills to fast-track legislation and limit debate isn’t unprecedented and usually is used to enact specific programs. Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton used reconciliation bills to secure budget reduction packages, and President George W. Bush secured tax cuts. Some reconciliation bills have won bipartisan support, such as the student loan measures enacted in 2007.

The budget process will be a key component in the Obama administration’s revisions of workplace matters.

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