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ADVOCACY & POLICY UPDATE - December 20th, 2021

Senate to Vote on Build Back Better Act

Washington Update

Build Back Better Act

On Sunday, December 19, Senator Joe Manchin (WV) said he would not back the Democrats’ $2 trillion social spending bill, the Build Back Better Act. The potentially fatal blow to President Biden’s domestic initiative comes after several months of negotiations among Democrats. Despite Senator Joe Manchin’s opposition, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (NY) said the Senate will vote on the bill early next year. In a letter to Senate Democrats, Schumer also said the chamber will consider voting rights legislation as soon as their first week back in Washington after the holiday break.

Manchin seemed to indicate a willingness to continue negotiations with his party, but essentially said the legislation would die unless his demands for a smaller, less sweeping package were met. It is uncertain if progressive Democrats will accept a smaller package. Manchin signaled his opposition centered on concerns about inflation, the growing federal debt, and a need to focus on the omicron variant. He also wants the bill’s initiatives to last the measure’s full 10-year duration — many of them are temporary to limit the cost, which he feels is misleading. For example, the legislation’s extension of the enhanced child tax credit benefits would only be extended one year. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projected the credit’s full 10-year cost at $1.6 trillion, nearly the size of the entire package Manchin says he’d accept. Therefore, any compromise would likely have to reduce the tax credit’s benefits and deeply cut many other proposals.

As for Manchin’s claims it would fuel inflation and worsen budget deficits, Democrats say its annual spending would be a tiny percentage of the country’s $23 trillion economy, have minimal impact on prices, and its job training, education, and other initiatives would spur economic growth and curb inflation in the long-term. The failure of the Build Back Better Act could affect Democrats’ ability to get behind any substantial legislation before the November 2022 midterm congressional elections.

Click here to read Senate Majority Leader Schumer’s ‘Dear Colleague’ letter.

Debt Ceiling

On Thursday, December 16, President Joe Biden signed the bill raising the debt limit ceiling, which passed Congress earlier in the week. Congress voted to raise the national debt limit by $2.5 trillion and extend it into 2023 – averting what could have been a catastrophic default. On Tuesday, December 14, the Senate passed the bill in a party line vote of 50 to 49 while the House voted 221-209 on Wednesday, December 15. Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger (IL) was the lone member to break ranks and vote with Democrats. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen had warned that the debt limit could be reached on Wednesday, December 15, leaving Congress little time left to resolve the issue.

Vaccination and Testing Emergency Temporary Standard

On Friday, December 17, a three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals dissolved the stay of the Department of Labor’s (DOL) Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) COVID-19 Vaccination and Testing Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS). Following shortly after, OSHA posted new compliance dates on its website. Covered employers must now comply with the provisions of the ETS by January 10, 2022. If an employer opts to permit employees to test in lieu of vaccination, then testing of unvaccinated employees must begin on or before February 9, 2022.

Click here to read OSHA’s press release on the decision.

Click here to learn more about the ETS.

Employer-Directed Skills Act

On Tuesday, December 14, Education and Labor Committee Minority Chair Virginia Foxx (NC) and Congresswoman Elise Stefanik (NY) introduced the Employer-Directed Skills Act (HR 6255), which will empower America’s job creators to provide skills development opportunities that equip workers for in-demand jobs. The Employer-Directed Skills Act is intended to allow job creators to determine the skills their workforce needs, streamline the process for workers to access skills development, and leverage private sector investments to make employers a stakeholder in the reskilling process. Specifically, the legislation would allow employers to identify prospective workers to participate in a skills development program selected by the employer; expand eligible programs to include work-based learning provided by the employer or an outside program from a third-party provider, and provide partial reimbursements for the costs of upskilling programs through an Employer-Directed Skills Account.

Click here to read the full bill text.

H-2B Visas

On Monday, December 20, the Departments of Labor (DOL) and Homeland Security (DHS) announced that they will make an extra 20,000 H-2B visas available for fiscal 2022 and move to overhaul the H-2B system amid the persisting worker shortage. It's the first time DHS will raise the cap in the first half of the fiscal year. The visas, which allow non-agricultural employers to hire foreign workers temporarily, will be available to those hiring before March 31. All but 6,500 of the visas will be reserved for workers who have received an H-2B visa in the last three fiscal years. The remainder will be set aside for workers from Haiti, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, regardless of whether the government has granted them H-2B status before. The move signals how seriously the Biden Administration is taking the current worker shortage, which has been exacerbated by a lack of foreign labor because of processing delays and visa caps. In October 2021, there were 11 million job openings, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while there were nearly 1.4 million applicants for employment authorization pending at the end of the third quarter of fiscal 2021 according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Employers quickly praised the move but also urged additional action to increase the flow of foreign labor. The agencies also announced that DHS plans to propose a separate rule that would reform the H-2B program to "incorporate program efficiencies and protect against the exploitation of H-2B workers."

H-2A Visas

On Wednesday, December 15, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) released its annual list of minimum wages for H-2A agricultural workers – likely guaranteeing raises for many visa holders after the Trump Administration halted the process. The release comes as the DOL is proposing some changes to how the pay is calculated for some employees. The minimum wages for 2022, known as Adverse Effect Wage Rates, vary by state: The pay is lowest in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, at $11.99 an hour, and highest in California, Oregon and Washington, at more than $17 an hour. The agency uses the Agriculture Department's Farm Labor Survey to calculate the rates, which can be superseded by any state or union-negotiated floors that may be higher. More than 200,000 H-2A visas were issued by the U.S. government – which allow agricultural employers to hire foreign workers temporarily, in 2020. The minimum wages set out in the DOL's rule are intended to ensure the wages of visa holders do not depress the wages of American workers. The new rates will mean a pay raise for many agricultural workers, marking the end of a two-year Trump-era pay freeze that was meant to aid farmers in the wake of 2020 shutdowns prompted by the pandemic.

On Wednesday, December 1, the DOL published a proposed rule that suggests changes to how the rates are calculated for certain jobs after an earlier attempt to modify the methodology was blocked in court. While the USDA data will still be used to calculate most rates, specialized tasks that are not covered by the Farm Labor Survey will be subject to minimum wages based on separate DOL data. This means that workers performing certain jobs like driving a truck during some or all of their shifts would likely be paid more. The Labor Department is accepting comments on the proposed changes until Monday, January 31, 2022.

Click here to access DOL’s annual list of minimum wages.

Click here to access the Dec. 1 proposed rule.

Initial Jobless Claims

In the week ending December 11, the advance figure for seasonally adjusted initial claims was 206,000, an increase of 18,000 from the previous week's revised level. The previous week's level was revised up by 4,000 from 184,000 to 188,000. The 4-week moving average was 203,750, a decrease of 16,000 from the previous week's revised average. This is the lowest level for this average since November 15, 1969 when it was 202,750. The previous week's average was revised up by 1,000 from 218,750 to 219,750. The advance seasonally adjusted insured unemployment rate was 1.4 percent for the week ending December 4, a decrease of 0.1 percentage point from the previous week's unrevised rate.

Click here to access the full report.

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