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House Democrats Look for ‘Future’ Workplace Protection Ideas (Corrected)

Oct. 23, 2019, 10:47 PMUpdated: Oct. 24, 2019, 2:22 PM

House Democrats plan to craft a list of legislative recommendations to update protections in the modern workplace, informed by a series of hearings.

A pair of House Education and Labor subcommittees Oct. 23 held the first of a planned trio of “future of work” hearings. The amorphous phrase is often used to refer to automation on the job, the use of artificial intelligence tools for hiring and recruiting, and gig economy worker rights, among other issues.

Federal labor laws that have been largely unchanged for decades aren’t doing enough to protect today’s workers, according to some House Democrats. Wage and hour, labor organizing, and workplace safety laws need to be overhauled in particular to protect workers classified as self-employed contractors, instead of employees, they said at the hearing.

The committee will likely issue a report recommending legislation and actions to address “future of work” issues next year, according to one source familiar with the effort. Democrats will also continue to push a bill proposing massive changes to federal labor law in the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (H.R. 2474), which would broaden legal protections for workers and unions.

How technology influences the workplace is likely to continue to get a lot of attention from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, but so far there is little in the way of bipartisan solutions. Democrats want to bolster wages, worker protections, and union bargaining power. Republicans want to give employers and workers the tools to continue experimenting with flexible work environments without requiring them to enter traditional employment relationships.

Key labor employment laws “are eroding” with the rise of app-based work and an increasing reliance on independent contractors, Rep. Alma Adams (D-N.C.) said at the hearing. That designation means the workers aren’t protected by minimum wage and overtime pay requirements, don’t have the right to unionize, and aren’t eligible for workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance benefits. The Fair Labor Standards Act and the Occupational Health and Safety Act, need to be updated to meet the technological advances that have altered the U.S. workforce, Adams said.

Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.) urged lawmakers to think outside the box, rather than trying to force old laws on new work arrangements.

“Instead of considering unworkable policies that will harm workers and businesses, we should be discussing ways to encourage flexible work arrangements and access to employer-sponsored benefits without creating costly and restrictive mandates. These are the kind of reforms necessary to adapt our laws for the future of work,” Walberg said.

The hearing was convened by the Health, Employment, Labor, and Pensions Subcommittee and the Workforce Protections Subcommittee. The next two future of work hearings have not yet been scheduled.

GOP: Boost Portable Benefits

Democrats have been pushing legislation including the Payroll Fraud Prevention Act, a bill that has yet to be introduced in this Congress that would penalize companies that wrongly classify their workers as independent contractors rather than employees, in addition to the PRO Act. Those measures would implement major changes to federal labor law.

Witnesses David Weil and Brishen Rogers said lawmakers should go even farther in adopting changes to labor laws.

Weil is a dean at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University as well as a former Labor Department Wage and Hour Division chief. Rogers, an associate professor at the Temple School of Law, argued for changing laws to amend the National Labor Relations Act to make it possible for workers to unionize in a European-type fashion in which entire industries bargain together. That is an idea that has also been floated by certain Democrat White House candidates, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

“Since building full-fledged sectoral bargaining units from scratch is basically impossible, Congress could grant unions sectoral bargaining rights in stages, based upon their support among the workforce,” Rogers said in his testimony. This would level the playing field and give workers more power, he said.

Republicans indicated they back legislation that instead allows independent contractors the ability to gain benefits like retirement and healthcare without being reclassified as employees.

Walberg said he supports multiple-employer plans that could allow small employers to join together to sponsor a single retirement plan for employees, which would significantly reduce costs for employers who might not otherwise be able to afford offering retirement benefits.

Committee Republicans also champion the expansion of association health plans, which would allow small businesses to join together to provide their employees with health care. Those are the kind of changes lawmakers should be striving for, Walberg said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jaclyn Diaz in Washington at jdiaz@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com; Heather Rothman at hrothman@bgov.com