Today’s News & Commentary — October 27, 2016

With fewer than two weeks remaining until the election, The Wall Street Journal reported political tensions have been heating up at work.  A Society for Human Resources and Management survey found that more than half of human resources personnel are reporting more political discord at work in this election cycle than in the past.  As a result, employers have noted decreased productivity, but many have been reluctant to ban political conversations in the workplace, especially in light of the National Labor Relations Act’s prohibition on employers banning employee speech on issues such as wages and working conditions.  Read more here.

The Upshot published an explainer in the wake of the Obama Administration’s announcement that the cost of some health plans would increase.  The price of  premiums for midlevel plans are estimated to rise by 22 percent in 2017.  However, these price increases will only affect those who purchase their own insurance.  Americans who receive health care coverage through their employer or government programs, such as Medicare or Medicaid, will not be affected by these rate increases.

Yesterday, the Fourth Circuit heard Donald Blankenship’s appeal from his conviction to conspire to violate mine safety standards.  Blankenship is the former CEO of Massey Energy Company.  Massey operated the Upper Big Branch Mine where a coal dust explosion in 2010 killed 29 people in the largest mining disaster in 40 years.  Blankenship is believed to be the first head of a major U.S. firm prosecuted for safety violations following a workplace disaster.  Blankenship has termed himself an “American political prisoner” in a pamphlet he authored while incarcerated.  One of the issues Blankenship has raised on appeal is whether the District Court incorrectly instructed the jury on the willfulness standard such that he could be convicted without proof that he understood his conduct to be illegal.  Read more here.

Also in federal court yesterday, a district court in Alabama heard arguments on a motion to dismiss a lawsuit challenging an Alabama law preempting Birmingham’s minimum wage increase to $10.10.  Alabama has no state minimum wage. Plaintiffs in the case, who include civil rights groups, two restaurant workers, and community clergy, have alleged that the law is a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause and the Voting Rights Act.  Only Birmingham, a majority black city, was affected by HB 174, the state law preventing the city ordinance from taking effect.  The complaint charges that the Alabama law was motivated by “racial animus.” Read more here.