Week Ending September 18, 2015
Federal Funding Down to the Wire; Government Shutdown Still Possible
There has been no official movement in Congress towards passing a continuing resolution (CR) to keep the government running past September 30 when the current funding bills will expire. Instead, House GOP leaders have been bogged down in a skirmish over how to defund Planned Parenthood, thus risking another government shutdown. At this point, it appears the Senate will move first to pass a CR, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) attempts to avert a shutdown. Leader McConnell also noted that he expects the across-the-board spending caps (sequester) on yearly-approved spending to be raised. Democratic leadership in the House and Senate share a united strategy with the President to push for a “clean” CR with no poison pill amendments, or “riders,” and to adjust the sequester caps equally for defense and non-defense spending. Congressional Democrats also are fully prepared to sustain the President’s veto of any bill that would strip Planned Parenthood’s federal funding.
The 2013 Republican government shutdown lasted 16 days and resulted in the loss of $24 billion from the national economy. Our country cannot afford another shutdown or the continued austerity of sequestration. Fully reversing the planned sequester for fiscal years 2016 and 2017 would add 500,000 jobs, as projected by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office.
Senators Introduce Bipartisan Bill to Repeal 40% Tax on Worker Health Benefits
Sens. Dean Heller (R-NV) and Martin Heinrich (D-NM) introduced bipartisan legislation to repeal the 40% tax on high-cost employer-sponsored worker health benefits. AFSCME supports repealing this tax because it already is forcing some employers to reduce workers’ 2015 health benefits and it shifts health costs onto workers by increasing deductibles, co-pays, and out-of-pocket expenses. Many AFSCME members are already being affected in contract negotiations. In future years, it will affect many more.
National surveys illustrate roughly 60% of employers are already making significant changes to their health plans for 2015 and 33% are reducing the richness of their plan designs by raising out-of-pocket costs. Experts note that health plans can be costly for many reasons other than generous benefits. In fact, key cost drivers typically are insuree population demographics (e.g. age, gender, health problems); geography; and the market share of dominant insurers or providers. Insured workers do not control these factors and through no fault of their own, this tax harms them.
Sen. Heller said: “The reality is that in 2018, middle-class Americans will face a costly healthcare tax, the ‘Cadillac Tax.’… This tax will reduce benefits, increase costs of premiums and deductibles, and limit healthcare choices…. My hope is that reasonable Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle will join us in this important, bipartisan endeavor to protect middle-class Americans.” Sen. Heinrich stated: “Doing away with this onerous tax on employees’ health coverage before it goes into effect will protect important benefits for workers and ensure businesses and families get a fair deal.”
This Senate legislation is a companion to Rep. Joe Courtney’s (D-CT) bipartisan House bill (HR 2050), which has more than 140 cosponsors. In the House, a majority of Representatives now cosponsor legislation to repeal this 40% tax. AFSCME strongly supports these repeal bills and is actively working to generate additional bipartisan support in the House and Senate.
Jon Stewart Joins Effort to Renew 9/11 Health and Compensation Program; Activists Hold Second Lobby Day
On Wednesday, comedian and former host of The Daily Show Jon Stewart was on Capitol Hill to join advocates lobbying for passage of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Reauthorization Act (H.R. 1786; S. 2844). AFSCME District Council 37 members traveled to Washington, D.C. as part of the Citizens for the Extension of the James Zadroga Act Lobby Day. While workers were meeting with congressional offices, Stewart held two press conferences to draw attention to this critical program, which is set to expire on October 1 unless Congress reauthorizes it. Stewart used his final Daily Show to highlight the importance of the Zadroga program.
Congress passed this bill in 2010 to provide medical treatment and health monitoring for those who developed illnesses due to their work at Ground Zero after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It provides compensation to those who are no longer able to work, as well as survivor benefits to relatives of those who have died. The law established the World Trade Center Health Program, which has provided monitoring and treatment for over 70,000 responders or survivors in all 50 states.
AFSCME advocated strongly for the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act five years ago, and its reauthorization is a top priority now.
Senators Introduce Bill Granting Federal Employees Paid Parental Leave
Sens. Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) introduced the Federal Employees Paid Parental Leave Act (FEPPLA, S. 2033), which provides federal employees with six weeks of paid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) for the birth, adoption, or fostering of a child. While the FMLA allows employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for medical and family needs, it provides no paid parental leave. This important bill improves the situation for new mothers and fathers working in the federal workforce.
AFSCME President Lee Saunders stated: “Everybody knows that family comes first. This legislation is a commonsense way to help create an economy that works for everyone and even more importantly, it’s good for families.”
Sen. Schatz said: “America is still the only industrial nation in the world without a program that gives working parents the time off and income they need to care for a new child. Our legislation will provide federal workers with six weeks of paid leave, making sure no federal employee has to make the impossible choice between caring for a newborn child and putting dinner on the table.” Studies demonstrate this type of paid parental leave for federal employees would annually save the government more than $50 million due to reduced staff turnover and replacement.
The Senate bill is a companion to Rep. Carolyn Maloney’s (D- NY) FEPPLA bill, (H.R. 532), which has 56 co-sponsors. AFSCME strongly supports this bill and worked closely with the offices of Sens. Schatz and Mikulski on its introduction.
Congress Reaches Agreement to Reauthorize Grain Standards Act; Industry Efforts to Privatize Fall Short
Negotiators in the House and Senate reached an agreement this week to swiftly complete reauthorization of the U.S. Grain Standards Act, which includes the Federal Grain Inspection Services (FGIS). While many provisions of the law were extended last year, some aspects—such as states’ authority to collect fees and perform inspections on behalf of the Department of Agriculture (USDA)—were set to expire at the end of September.
AFSCME fought the grain industry’s efforts to privatize grain inspections or to encourage increasing states’ use of private inspectors. Additionally, the original House legislation made it more difficult for certain states to maintain their status as “authorized states” by the USDA to perform inspections, but that was not part of the final agreement.
Workplace Action for a Growing Economy (WAGE) Act Introduced
Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) recently introduced the Workplace Action for a Growing Economy (WAGE) Act, legislation that would amend the National Labor Relations Act (the Act) to strengthen protections for employees who advocate for improved wages, hours and other terms or conditions of employment and to provide stronger remedies for interference with these rights. The WAGE Act makes clear that workers’ rights are civil rights, and that corporations who abuse working people must face meaningful penalties that are necessary to halt exploitation. Among the labor reforms included in this legislation are stronger penalties for employers’ union election interference, allowing all workers regardless of immigration status to be eligible for back pay relief, directing the National Labor Relations Board to seek injunctions for some employer violations of the Act, and triple back pay for certain violations. AFSCME supports passage of this important legislation.
Census Data Shows Dramatic Positive Impact of the Affordable Care Act
Affordable quality health insurance means you and your family can see a doctor, go to the hospital and get needed medicines. Good health insurance coverage provides peace of mind and protects families from financial ruin due to illness or injury. A recent Census Bureau report confirms that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is responsible for dramatically improving access to health care across the country. Some 8.8 million Americans became insured in 2014 as a result of the law. Expanded coverage also benefits employers that provide health insurance and their workers because now medical providers have far less uncompensated care. In the past, doctors and hospitals shifted the cost of uncompensated care to those with employment-based coverage in the form of higher medical bills.
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