Beltway Buzz, May 14, 2021
Unemployment Insurance Update. Late last week, the U.S. Department of Labor’s (DOL) Bureau of Labor Statistics released a report showing that the nonfarm economy added only 266,000 jobs in April 2021, well short of the 1 million jobs that many economists were predicting. The disappointing news had many policymakers and lobbyists in Washington, D.C., this week looking for answers. While workers’ fears of contracting COVID-19 as well as ongoing childcare issues certainly remain roadblocks to filling open jobs, the potential impact of unemployment insurance (UI) benefits on individuals’ willingness to return to work took center stage this week. For example:
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce issued a statement calling for the end of the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) program’s $300 weekly premium. The Chamber’s internal economic analysis concluded that “the $300 benefit results in approximately one in four recipients taking home more in unemployment than they earned working.” The FPUC program, which was created by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act in the early stages of the pandemic, has always been a bit controversial among certain lawmakers and employers that expressed concern about its potential impact on workers returning to work.
Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE) will introduce the National Signing Bonus Act, which would provide individuals with “a federal signing bonus equal to 101 percent of two months of the [FPUC] benefit” if they get a job by July 4, 2021. The bonus would be paid in installments.
Nine Republican lawmakers introduced the Get Americans Back To Work Act, which would reduce the FPUC premium to $150 dollars beginning on May 31, 2021, before ending it altogether on June 30, 2021. Under current law, FPUC and other CARES Act programs, such as the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) program (providing extra benefits weeks for individuals who exhaust their state UI benefits) and the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program for workers who are not traditionally eligible for unemployment insurance (such as independent contractors), are scheduled to end on September 6, 2021.
At the time of this writing at least 15 states—Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, and Wyoming—have announced that they will stop participating in the FPUC weekly premium program and other federal pandemic UI programs. At least one senator feels a bit berned by these actions, and wrote a letter to Secretary of Labor Martin Walsh arguing that the CARES Act requires PUA funds to be distributed.
ETS AWOL? While not exactly absent without leave, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) long-anticipated COVID-19–specific emergency temporary standard (ETS) is taking a bit longer than anticipated. President Joe Biden essentially ordered OSHA to promulgate an ETS by March 15, 2021, but OSHA didn’t finish its draft until April 26, 2021. Since then, the draft ETS has been at the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) for review. As part of its review, OIRA is meeting with concerned stakeholders about the potential ETS. Meetings are currently scheduled through May 18, 2021, meaning that it is unlikely (though not impossible) that OIRA will complete its review and release the ETS prior to that date. All told, OIRA is scheduled to meet with nearly 40 stakeholder groups, which is indicative of the intense interest in this issue.
Pregnancy Accommodation Bill Passes House. On May 14, 2021, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (H.R. 1065) by a vote of 315–101, with 99 Republicans joining their Democratic colleagues. The bill, which the Buzz has been tracking for some time, would require employers to provide pregnant workers with reasonable accommodations, such as extra bathroom breaks. With the bipartisan House vote and backing of members of the business community, the bill has a decent chance of passing the U.S. Senate and landing on President Biden’s desk.
DOL Finalizes Prevailing Wage Rule Delay. On May 13, 2021, the DOL’s Employment and Training Administration officially delayed until November 14, 2022, the effective date of a final rule that will increase the prevailing wages that must be paid to H-1B, H-1B1, or E-3 nonimmigrant visa holders, as well as many employment-based green card applicants. Implementation of the new rule will begin on January 1, 2023. The rule was finalized in the waning days of the Trump administration after a previous rulemaking effort was struck down by multiple federal courts for failure to follow Administrative Procedure Act notice and comment protocols.
Nominations Update. This week, the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) advanced the nominations of Jocelyn Samuels (to serve another term as commissioner of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) and Seema Nanda (to serve as solicitor of labor). The next stop for them is a vote on the Senate floor. However, the HELP Committee deadlocked 11–11 on the nomination of Jennifer Abruzzo to serve as general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board, which means the full Senate will have to vote in order to discharge her nomination from the HELP Committee. As the Buzz has discussed, Abruzzo’s position on President Biden’s labor transition team and her potential role in the president’s decision to replace former Board general counsel Peter Robb has rankled Republican lawmakers.
A President Remembered. This week in 1887, Congress unveiled on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol a statue of James A. Garfield, 20th president of the United States. Prior to his time in the White House, Garfield served as a major general in the Union army during the Civil War and then as a member of Congress representing Ohio from 1863 to 1880. Garfield never campaigned for the presidency, but was instead elected as a compromise candidate at the 1880 Republican National Convention. Just four months into his presidency, Garfield was shot by Charles Guiteau, an unsuccessful lawyer and bill collector who felt he should have been awarded a position in the administration. (While the Buzz is not normally big on musical theater, we can recommend Stephen Sondheim’s compelling interpretation of Guiteau and his murderous act in Assassins.) Efforts to save Garfield and comfort him while he attempted to recover in the White House included an early precursor to modern-day air conditioning. Two months after being shot, Garfield succumbed to his wound and died on September 19, 1881, likely due to infection from unsterilized medical instruments. Garfield remains the only sitting member of the U.S. House of Representatives to become president.