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New Caucus Shows Congress Preparing to Focus on ‘Future of Work’

Nov. 13, 2019, 11:42 AM

House lawmakers have reached across the aisle to form a new caucus that will help to define Congress’s approach to legal and regulatory concerns arising from the adoption of artificial intelligence, robotics, and other forms of automation technology.

Congress lacks a national strategic plan for how it will respond to automation technology—commonly referred to under the catch-all term of “Future of Work"—and the far-reaching changes it will produce in the economy and for the American worker, said Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.), a co-founder of the caucus.

The Congressional Future of Work Caucus, as the group will be known, is led by Blunt Rochester and Rep. Bryan Steil (R-Wisc.). It has a dozen members: nine Democrats and three Republicans.

The caucus’s first mission will be to define the technologies, sectors, and jobs included under the Future of Work banner. The term has come to encompass issues such as automation on the job, the use of artificial intelligence tools in hiring, and gig economy worker rights, but it also extends to industries like telemedicine, agriculture, banking, and retail.

The group will then focus on promoting conversations among lawmakers to identify areas where Congress could get involved and others where it should tread lightly, Blunt Rochester and Steil told Bloomberg Law via email.

Areas of potential activity, Blunt Rochester said, include pursuing worker retraining programs and a system of portable benefits, and finding ways to analyze emerging industries without hindering growth.

She stopped short of suggesting the caucus itself would submit legislation, but said the plan is for the group to meet “at least quarterly” and to complement the work congressional committees are doing on Future of Work issues.

The new caucus comes as the House Education and Labor Committee and the New Democrat Coalition, a group of centrist Democrats, are separately considering introducing legislation next year.

Alastair Fitzpayne, executive director of the Future of Work Initiative at the Aspen Institute, worries any progress on Capitol Hill may be stymied by partisan politics.

“I still think the question is what exactly would the House produce as comprehensive legislation in this area. My sense is that people are still trying to understand the trends and industries and how that maps up against what the right policy answers are,” Fitzpayne said. “I don’t think anyone is particularly optimistic that there could be comprehensive legislation.”

Potential for Broader Coordination

Blunt Rochester, a former head of the Delaware labor department, and Steil, who used to work in Wisconsin’s manufacturing sector and served as a member of the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System, believe common ground can be found.

Blunt Rochester cited “constant dialogue” in Congress about how lawmakers can balance Future of Work innovation with worker rights, along with potentially wading into other related, big-ticket national issues, such as tailoring the educational system to meet the needs of a rapidly changing economy.

“Every member I’ve spoken to about this issue has the same goal: positioning America’s workers and our economy to continue to lead in the 21st century,” she told Bloomberg Law, adding: “This is about getting members who are truly passionate about this topic to the table to discuss how we move forward as a nation.”

Future of Work is such a broad term, grouping together issues and disciplines that stretch across many different congressional committees and jurisdictions, that lawmakers weren’t uniform in their approach, Blunt Rochester said. But the new caucus is not the only evidence that Congress is increasingly focusing on issues related to how technology disrupts established industries and alters long-held labor relationships.

The New Democrat Coalition in the last Congress created a task force to look into Future of Work concerns. Blunt Rochester was a co-chair of that effort.

The group issued reports and policy recommendations emphasizing its position that Congress needs to invest in retraining initiatives for workers affected by automation, along with a system of portable benefits to support gig economy workers, who are often classified as independent contractors and thus can’t receive health-care, retirement or other benefits.

The New Democrats’ task force is revamping its policy platform to hone in on those policy priorities as it explores potential legislation next year, according to a coalition representative.

The group has seen some success. It was able to attach an amendment to the House fiscal 2020 Labor-HHS-Education appropriations bill that would force the Bureau of Labor Statistics to modernize how it measures labor trends and conducts worker surveys that track non-traditional work arrangements. The bill has yet to pass.

Separately, the House Education and Labor Committee began hosting a series of public hearings on the Future of Work this fall as it prepares a legislative push of its own next year. Democrats on the committee say they plan to craft a list of legislative recommendations based on those hearings.

Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.), a New Democrat who sits on the Education and Labor Committee, said lawmakers should consider looking closely at emerging employment sectors in the next decade, in addition to investing in retraining programs and educational alternatives.

Obstacles to Bipartisanship

Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.), ranking member of the panel’s subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor, and Pensions, said creating a system where benefits, like those for health care or retirement, can be used by workers outside of a normal employer-employee relationship is another possibility for bipartisan compromise.

“I think we can work together very well on that. I guess time will tell,” he said. But he added that the impeachment proceeding against President Donald Trump could thwart short-term efforts to develop bipartisan support for legislation.

“If we can get past impeachment, that will be helpful,” he said.

Ideological differences between the opposing parties could also prove to be significant obstacles, said Randy Johnson, a labor lobbyist with Seyfarth Shaw.

Republicans on the Education and Labor Committee said during the panel’s first Future of Work hearing that they want to encourage businesses and workers to experiment with flexible work arrangements without forcing anyone to enter into a traditional employment relationship.

“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,” Walberg said at the Oct. 23 hearing.

Johnson said the concept of portable benefits is gaining traction, but getting bipartisan buy-in for legislation will come down to settling on details—and that’s where lawmakers can run into trouble.

“It’s an idea that seems to be fairly straightforward, but details need to be worked out,” he said. “That includes who controls the money, how much should business contribute, how much should workers get, and what kind of benefits can be included.”

Many House Democrats, intent on revamping federal labor laws to improve workplace protections for gig economy workers and to boost wages and union bargaining power, are heavily promoting the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (H.R. 2474). The bill would make significant changes to federal labor law and broaden legal protections for workers and unions.

Democrats are also advocating for the Payroll Fraud Prevention Act, a similar bill that has yet to be introduced in this Congress. A past version sought to penalize companies that wrongly classify their workers as independent contractors rather than employees.

But business groups view these proposals as non-negotiable. The Coalition for Workforce Innovation, a group led by the Retail Industry Leaders Association, is cautioning lawmakers against embracing either piece of legislation. The coalition, whose membership includes Lyft Inc., Postmates Inc., and several other gig companies is readying for its own Future of Work lobbying push next year.

Evan Armstrong, vice president of government affairs for the Retail Industry Leaders Association and leader of the coalition, said CWI is interested in working with centrist and moderate lawmakers such as the New Democrats, but would pull back from talks on policy solutions if the Protecting the Right to Organize Act is on the table.

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

To contact the editors responsible for this story: John Lauinger at jlauinger@bloomberglaw.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bloomberglaw.com

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