News & Commentary

June 23, 2022

Anita Alem

Anita Alem is a student at Harvard Law School.

In today’s news and commentary: Biden calls for gas tax moratorium, Supreme Court invalidates Washington workers’ compensation law, Eighth Circuit upholds Arkansas law forbidding state contractors from “boycotting” Israel, Senators introduce the Good Jobs for Good Airports Act, and the Labor Department hires 100 new investigators after record lows in wage and hour staffing. 

President Joe Biden announced on Wednesday that he is asking for Congress and state legislatures to temporarily halt federal and state gas and diesel taxes as fuel prices have skyrocketed. Rising gas prices have been especially difficult for U.S. workers who rely on their cars to get to work, or even use their car as a tool of work in the case of gig economy workers, and for employers who have been attempting to return to physical offices as the COVID-19 pandemic eases. Biden said the plan would give “immediate relief” to families even if it would not resolve the rising prices long-term, which are at least in part a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has now been ongoing for 120 days. However, the idea of suspending gas taxes has been subject to significant criticism from economists as well as Republican and Democrat politicians alike – in part because its impacts may be extremely limited. Biden’s proposal, which would halt gas taxes through the end of September, coincides with the beginning of the midterm elections.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court unanimously invalidated a Washington state law that imposed a lower bar for accessing workers’ compensation on certain federal contractors assisting with clean-up on a World War II nuclear waste site. The federal government challenged the law, passed in 2018, as it required the government to pay higher costs associated with workers’ compensation. The Supreme Court invalidated the law under the nondiscrimination principle that aims to prevent states from discriminating against the federal government. 

Also on Tuesday, the Eighth Circuit, sitting en banc, upheld 9-1 an Arkansas law passed in 2017 that requires government contractors to certify that they will not “boycott” Israel. The Arkansas Times challenged the law under the First Amendment, but the panel found that the law merely affected non-expressive commercial decisions, and the legislative motive behind the law was primarily economic. Arkansas is one of many states that require contractors to sign anti-BDS clauses; such clauses previously gained notoriety after, in 2018, a children’s speech pathologist applying for a school contractor position in Texas was terminated after refusing to sign the clause.

The Guardian reported that three Democratic Senators introduced the “Good Jobs for Good Airports” bill to increase the minimum wage for airport workers to $15 and provide for improved time off and health insurance benefits. The bill has been backed by several unions, including SEIU and UNITE HERE, who have noted the bill has the potential to impact thousands of airport workers, largely people of color.

As we reported in May, the Department of Labor has been facing a shortage of investigators in its Wage and Hour Division, reaching a 50-year low this year due in part to workload burnout, low morale, and a hostile culture. Bloomberg reported that the Division has now hired 100 new investigators, currently undergoing training, to remedy the short staffing. The Division is also reportedly working to address communication issues, staff feedback, and unmanageable caseloads that initially led to the attrition. 

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