Issues / Legislation » Legislative Weekly Reports

Week Ending June 27, 2014

Senate Passes Workforce Investment Act (WIA) Reauthorization; House Expected to Act in Early July

On Wednesday, the Senate voted 95 to 3 to pass the Workforce Investment and Opportunity Act (WIOA). The Senate action caps over a decade of failed efforts to renew this workforce law, which technically expired in 2003, because of an inability to bridge ideological differences between congressional Democrats and Republicans. 

Among the most controversial issues was a GOP proposal to combine a number of workforce programs into a single block grant, which would have ended the state Employment Service (ES).  WIOA maintains the Employment Service (ES), a long term AFSCME priority.  It also continues the individual identities of the WIA adult, dislocated worker and youth programs although local areas would have some authority to transfer funds between the adult and dislocated worker programs. Rejecting a block grant strategy, the legislation attempts to coordinate and link these and other workforce programs more tightly in the one-stop system that the Workforce Investment Act originally created. Planning requirements, technology, implementation of common data systems, and the financing of the local one-stop offices are among the ways in which the new legislation would accomplish this.

WIOA includes a number of amendments to the Wagner-Peyser Act.  Several reinforce it as a system of public employment offices and strengthen its ties to the Unemployment Insurance program.  Another requires that local Wagner-Peyser ES offices be collocated with local one-stop offices, a practice that already is common in most places.

The legislation also includes several new provisions related to training for AFSCME represented employees.  It adds a new requirement for the U.S. Department of Labor and state agencies to coordinate in establishing activities to enhance the professional development and career advancement opportunities of state ES staff. It also creates a multi-state study to develop and implement career advancement models for low-wage health care providers and providers of early education and child care.

State and local workforce boards will continue with a business majority but with much smaller membership. However, working with the AFL-CIO, we succeeded in keeping the administrator of the ES and other state workforce programs on the state board, and an ES representative on the local boards.  In addition, the number of union members on the boards was increased slightly.

The Senate bill was developed during confidential negotiations between key House and Senate staff during the last six months and has the support of House GOP leaders.  It is expected to be considered on the House floor soon after the July 4 recess.

Push for Unemployment Benefits Continues

Despite the House’s failure to take up Senate–passed legislation for a five-month continuation of the Federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation program through May, advocates for the unemployed continue to press for action.  Senators Jack Reed (D-RI) and Dean Heller (R-NV) announced new legislation (S. 2532) this week that would provide another five-month program, but without the retroactive payments back to when the program expired at the end of 2013 in the earlier legislation.  In the House, 10 Democrats wrote to new House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), seeking a meeting to find a way forward on the issue.

House Democrats and advocates for unemployed workers held another "Witness Wednesday" event this week on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol to continue to urge Speaker Boehner (R-OH) to stop blocking critical aid for the unemployed. This week, Reps. David Cicilline (D-RI), Xavier Becerra (D-CA), Joseph Crowley (D-NY), Dan Kildee (D-MI), Dina Titus (D-NV) and Paul Tonko (D-NY) joined with labor, veteran, faith and community organizations to read stores of unemployed workers. In a previous Witness Wednesday, an AFSCME spokesperson related the story of a Head Start worker who lost her job and then her unemployment benefits.

More than 3.1 million Americans have lost their federal unemployment benefits, and that number is expected to grow to over five million by the end of the year. 

U.S. Supreme Court Rules President Obama’s Recess Appointments Unconstitutional

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that President Obama’s recess appointments to fill three slots on the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in 2012 were unconstitutional.  In the case, National Labor Relations Board v. Canning, the Court held in a unanimous opinion that these appointees were ineligible to serve because their appointments were made while the Senate was technically in a “pro-forma” session during the 2011-2012 winter holiday break.  The decision also clarified that the Constitution does allow a president to fill temporary appointments during a total recess, without congressional approval. The ruling against the Obama administration could have the effect invalidating hundreds of NLRB decisions. 

Funding Bills Stall

With a shrinking number of legislative days remaining before the end of the fiscal year on September 30, none of the 12 funding bills has been completed. The Senate had attempted to package three spending bills together but failed to reach agreement on amendments and did not proceed. A similar challenge stopped the bill that funds labor, health and human services programs from moving forward. In the House, the shakeup in the GOP leadership has disrupted its legislative schedule. It was in the middle of considering the bill to fund agriculture and nutrition programs when the bill was pulled from floor consideration. 

Efforts to complete action on funding bills will resume during the three weeks Congress is in session before the August recess.  But with only a few additional weeks remaining in September before the next fiscal year begins, it seems very likely that a stop-gap bill to continue funding for federal programs will be needed before Congress adjourns for this fall's elections. 

Senate Panel Holds Hearing on Bill to Strengthen Voting Rights Act

This week, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the Voting Rights Amendment Act (S.1945).  The bill was introduced early this year by a group of bipartisan lawmakers with the intention of repairing damage to the Voting Rights Act (VRA) caused by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 opinion in Shelby County v. Holder.  The decision overturned a key provision in the VRA that required 16 states with long histories of voter discrimination to gain federal judiciary preclearance to change voting laws and locations.  After Shelby, many of these states passed new restrictions to the right to vote.

The hearing focused on the bill’s new formula to determine which states would require federal preclearance for voting law changes and the necessity of preclearance to avoid voting restrictions. Leaders of the NAACP and a Texas state senator gave testimony on the new formula, which requires federal preclearance for states that have had five statewide VRA violations or municipal districts with three violations within the last 15 years. This currently would affect four states. AFSCME strongly supports this legislation and submitted a statement for the congressional record.

White House Summit Addresses Policy Solutions to Help Working Families

The White House held a summit this week with labor leaders, elected officials, businesses and activists to discuss what workplace policies are needed to reflect changes in the American family as women now comprise half of all workers, two-thirds of mothers work, and workers are struggling to effectively juggle work and family responsibilities.  Speakers including President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, Vice-President Biden, Dr. Jill Biden, Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez, and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) addressed topics including wage fairness and disparities,  paid leave, workplace flexibility, retirement security, the role of organized labor and LGBT families.  The Council of Economic Advisors issued a report on workplace flexibility along with a study documenting the changes and challenges facing American families, along with proposed policy solutions.  More than 20 AFSCME representatives participated in the summit, including Secretary-Treasurer Laura Reyes.

While Congress has been unable to pass legislation addressing many of these needed policy solutions, President Obama has issued executive orders covering federal workers and federal contractors.  As part of the executive branch’s effort to improve public policy for families, the Department of Labor announced plans to issue a proposed rule to clarify that same-sex spouses are eligible for emergency family leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) regardless of whether the state in which they live recognizes their marriages. 

House Leaves for July 4 Recess without Addressing Immigration Reform

The House began its week-long July 4 recess after failing to take any action on moving immigration reform legislation to a floor vote.  H.R. 15, a comprehensive bill modeled on the bipartisan Senate bill (S. 744) that passed exactly a year ago, has 200 co-sponsors but continues to languish.  Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has allowed his tea-party wing to dictate inaction, even though he has said he supports reform and a majority of votes exist right now for a bipartisan bill to pass the House.

President Obama has delayed taking executive action to give the House time to legislate on immigration reform.  That time is rapidly slipping away, however, with the House in session only 16 more days before its five-week August recess.  Then, in the few days remaining in September before House members leave to campaign, Congress must resolve all fiscal year 2015 spending bills before October 1 to avoid a government shutdown. 

House and Senate Democratic leaders held a press conference on Thursday, marking the one-year anniversary of the bipartisan passage of the Senate bill and called on Speaker Boehner to stop blocking a House vote.   

Unaccompanied Minors Crossing the Southern Border a  Humanitarian Crisis

There has been a surge of unaccompanied children (UACs) crossing the border in the past year.  According to Obama administration estimates, the number has increased more than 800 percent between fiscal years 2011 and 2013, and the numbers continue to rise.  About three-quarters of the children have come from Guatemala, Honduras, or El Salvador.  All of these countries have been experiencing an unprecedented level of violence, much of it drug and gang related, with Honduras recognized as the murder capital of the world.  Additionally, poor economic conditions have played a role in children taking the arduous overland trip from their homes through Mexico.  And, some of these children want to reunite with close family members living in the U.S.  Most of the children rely on dangerous human smuggling networks, and many girls have been the victims of sexual violence.  

This week, House committees held three hearings on this crisis.  Jeh Johnson, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, told one panel that the Obama administration is taking more than a dozen steps to address it.  Among them is locating and building facilities to house UACs as well as adults who are migrating with their children.  He has also sent additional border patrol agents to the Rio Grande Valley and is coordinating with the Department of Health and Human Services to ensure that children’s health and other basic needs are being addressed.

House Speaker Boehner convened a border crisis task force this week with seven GOP House members and headed up by Rep. Kay Granger (R-TX).  No Democrats were included. 

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