Today’s News and Commentary — March 28, 2017

President Trump repealed a rule yesterday requiring federal contractors to disclose labor law violations.  Per The Hill, the “blacklisting rule” implemented by President Obama was intended “to prevent the government from contracting with businesses responsible for wage theft or workplace safety violations at any point within the last three years.”  Business groups supported the rule’s repeal, while other commentators noted the repeal could contradict Trump’s stated promises to working-class voters of improving job prospects and working conditions.

Another action by President Trump is frustrating efforts by employers to find seasonal workers.  NPR reports that “a cap will soon kick in on the number of short-term work visas provided under the H-2B program, which brings in low-skilled labor for nonagricultural jobs that U.S. employers say they can’t fill closer to home.”  The cap particularly disadvantages employers in the Northern United States, where the demand for seasonal workers begins later in the year.  A bipartisan group of senators has called for an audit of the HB-2 program to ensure the maximum number of visas are awarded, while progressives have noted problems with the program.  For his part, President Trump has espoused opposition to hiring foreign workers but has hired dozens of foreign workers under the HB-2 program at his hotels and resorts.

Universities continue to oppose efforts by graduate students to unionize.  Most recently, The Cornell Daily Sun notes a series of questionable anti-union communications by Dean Barabara Knuth of the Cornell Graduate School through an online forum.  In particular, “the Ask a Dean forum has been a breeding ground for conflict.  Administrators claim they are addressing legitimate concerns from students — who are always anonymous — while union organizers claim that it is the University’s method of circumventing the agreement reached between the two sides in May that prevents professors or administrators from trying to persuade graduates to vote ‘no.'”

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Guest Post: A Letter from Sharon Block

Sharon Block is the Executive Director of Harvard University’s Labor and Worklife Program.  She formerly served in the Obama Administration as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy at the Department of Labor and Senior Counselor to the Secretary of Labor. 

Dear Friends:

Two months ago, I walked out of the Frances Perkins Building in Washington and helped turn off the lights on the Obama Administration’s Department of Labor.  As the head of the Department’s policy office and Senior Counselor to Secretary of Labor Tom Perez, I left proud of what we had accomplished to expand opportunity for American workers. I was also acutely aware that much remained to be done.

My life and the condition of our country has changed a great deal during these past two months.  I am thrilled to be embarking on a new professional journey here at the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School and honored to have the opportunity to work with Professors Richard Freeman and Ben Sachs, the program’s faculty directors.  I am humbled by the responsibility of taking over the program that my remarkable predecessor, Elaine Bernard, so successfully built over the past 30 years and by the magnitude of the challenges facing American workers today.

I come to the Labor and Worklife Program committed to continuing its core mission:  to take advantage of the unique Harvard University community to bring rigorous, creative and serious problem-solving efforts to meet today’s challenges and prepare for the opportunities of tomorrow.  A key component of my commitment is to continue the proud tradition of the Harvard Trade Union Program.  I believe that it is more important than ever, as the labor movement faces unprecedented challenges, that a new generation of leaders benefit from the unparalleled training that the HTUP has provided for 75 years.

Today’s News and Commentary — March 27, 2017

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka announced the federation’s opposition to the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch on Thursday, reports Politico.  Last week, Gorsuch  faced questioning from Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee for past decisions siding with employers on issues like worker safety, discrimination, and unions. Meanwhile, Committee Republicans have expressed support for Gorsuch, who has defended his decisions as merely following the law.

The New York Times Editorial Board published a piece Sunday arguing that Alexander Acosta, President Trump’s nominee for labor secretary, may be focused more on protecting employers rather than promoting the rights of workers.  The article cites Acosta’s testimony at his confirmation hearings, particularly that he dodged questions about upholding several Obama-era Labor Department rules, and argues that his failure to answer these questions suggests that he will “embrace the Trump Administration’s demolition approach to sensible regulation.”

Grocery delivery startup Instacart recently agreed to settle a nationwide class action with workers for $4.6 million. According to Buzzfeed News, the suit alleged that the workers were misclassified as independent contractors. Since the original suit was filed, Instacart has reconfigured its workplace so that its in-store shoppers are classified as employees, while delivery drivers remain classified as contractors, although it has also cut wages and made it more difficult for customers to tip. The settlement will not reclassify the drivers as employees, but will facilitate tipping on the Instacart app, and allow workers who have been deactivated to request reconsideration of the deactivation.

Weekend News & Commentary — March 25-26, 2017

House Republicans canceled a scheduled vote Friday on their Affordable Care Act (ACA) replacement.  With Speaker Paul Ryan and President Trump unable to whip the votes for the American Health Care Act (AHCA) due to defections from both the caucus’s conservative and moderate wings, the bill was withdrawn and no timeframe given for a revised version.  Over the past week, a number of commentators and news organizations looked at the AHCA’s potential impact on workers and businesses, analyses that may influence the work of producing a new bill with broader support.

The Chamber of Commerce came out in favor, arguing among other things that a reduction in regulation of the health care industry would reduce costs for businesses who provide insurance to employees.  But, the response from small businesses was more mixed, with some suggesting that the law would undo the ACA’s successful slowing of health care cost increases without introducing new mechanisms for reducing premiums (other than reducing coverage).

A particularly contentious element of the AHCA was that it allowed states to enact work requirements for receiving Medicaid, and Vann Newkirk of The Atlantic takes an in-depth look at the poor long-term results of similar prior efforts, concluding that “the only real outcome of a Medicaid work requirement is that fewer people will have access to Medicaid, which may be the point.”  Other commentators had looked specifically at how work requirements might negatively affect new mothers.

In non-health care news, a one-day strike by 17,000 AT&T technicians and call center workers in California and Nevada earlier this week ended with the company agreeing to the union’s demand that members no longer be forced to do work for other divisions of the company.  Striking workers generally maintained television services, but had been asked to support landline phone operations.  The successful demonstration of union power came in the midst of ongoing contract negotiations between a number of Communications Workers of America locals and AT&T across the spectrum of the telecommunication giant’s operations.

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Today’s News & Commentary — March 24, 2017

President Trump’s Labor Secretary pick Alexander Acosta promised at his Senate hearings not to let the partisan political considerations affect his administration of the Department of Labor.  His statements came in response to concerns expressed by Democrats that he had looked away as his subordinates at the Justice Department under George Bush deliberately preferenced conservatives in their hiring.  The Senate labor committee will vote next week on whether to advance Acosta’s nomination to a full Senate vote.

The Atlantic published an article on Wednesday on the work of Princeton economist Alan Krueger, who argues that an overlooked cause of the decline in American men’s labor force participation rate is poor health.  Only 89% of American men ages 25 to 54 were either working or looking for work, the second-lowest percentage of OECD countries (Italy has the lowest).  Krueger places blame on opioid addiction and alcoholism, but also on the far more common conditions of obesity and diabetes — health problems uniquely prevalent amongst Americans. Researchers have already pointed out the increased risk of alcoholism that unemployment causes.  Krueger’s work implies that one way to increase labor force participation would be to make greater investments into public health.

President Trump’s first Labor Secretary pick Andy Puzder will be stepping down from his role as CKE Restaurants CEO in April.  CKE Restaurants is the parent company of Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s.  Puzder claims that the nomination process was not a factor in his decision to step down as CEO.

Today’s News & Commentary — March 22, 2017

According to the New York Times, Portland, Maine will try a new tactic to deal with panhandlers: hire them. After Portland’s previous efforts — which included outlawing begging and bulldozing a strip in the middle of a road that had proved popular with beggars — were struck down by the First Circuit as infringing on people’s First Amendment rights and proved ineffective, respectively, city officials adopted a new tactic.  In April, Portland will hire a few panhandlers a day, pay them the city’s minimum wage of $10.68 an hour, and assign them to clean parks and public spaces. Several other cities have already successfully adopted a similar approach, and Portland is following their lead.  A year and a half ago, for example, Albuquerque instituted a jobs program that pays $9 an hour.  The program has created 1,750 jobs and led to the removal of over 60 tons of litter.  The jobs program in Portland will function similarly to the one in Albuquerque.

Alexander Acosta appears before the Senate HELP Committee today.  Politico weighs in on the issues expected to arise: politicized hiring at the DOJ, voting rights, Acosta’s role in Jeffrey Epstein’s plea deal, and DOL regulations governing retirement advice and overtime eligibility.

CNBC and Business Insider report that Goldman Sachs will move jobs out of London and bulk up its European presence by “hundreds of people” as it executes its Brexit contingency plans.  Richard Gnodde, the CEO of Goldman Sachs International, explained that the plans will “be a combination of things. We’ll hire people inside of Europe itself and there will be some movement.”  Goldman plans to invest in infrastructure, systems, and technology, and the movement away from London will “not necessarily result in a net reduction of workers in the U.K.”

Today’s News & Commentary — March 21, 2017

Alex Acosta, President Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Labor, is expected to face some skepticism during his confirmation hearing on Wednesday, largely because his views on important policy issues are still unknown. If confirmed, he will face a long to-do list, including weighing in on issues such as the Obama administration’s fiduciary rule and overtime regulations. Bloomberg offers some analysis on what to expect out of Mr. Acosta’s DOL.

Two more Uber executives resigned yesterday, according to the Washington Post, continuing a rough stretch for the company. In the past three months, the company has lost senior leaders in departments that oversee marketing, engineering, artificial intelligence and product development. The company also took some heat after the New York Times reported on the secret technology it used to avoid local regulation.

The confirmation hearing for Judge Neil Gorsuch continues today. The New York Times offers streaming and live briefing. Senators will be allotted 30 minutes of questioning each.

The New York Times asks whether robots can replace lawyers. The answer? Yes, but not yet. The business section also offers some helpful advice on how to improve your productivity at work.