The White House Office of Management & Budget has announced that it will be submitting a proposal to Congress to cap reimbursement levels for executives of federal contractors at rates no higher than the salary of the President. The current cap for calculating reimbursements is $763,000, and will need to be raised to $950,000 under the current formula, which is based upon surveys of pay of private sector CEO's and other senior personnel. While the release from OMB states that the measure, if adopted, would have the potential of saving taxpayers "hundreds of millions of dollars over what they would have to pay if the cap remains unchanged," there are no actual statistics provided. The OMB's proposal brings to mind the response of Babe Ruth to a reporter's statement that the salary of $80,000 he was demanding in 1930 was more than the President's $75,000 pay: “I know, but I had a better year than Hoover.”
Earlier this week, the expansion of the federal Small Business Administration’s (SBA) Women Owned Small Business (WOSB) Program went into effect. See link to federal register notice. The regulatory change, effective May 7, 2013, removes contract award size caps from the WOSB program, as well as the related Economically Disadvantaged Women’s Owned Small Business Program (EDWOSB). This means there should be a larger pool of federal contracting opportunities available for certified women-owned small businesses.
The WOSB and EDWOSB programs were implemented in February 2011. The program allows the contracting officers for federal government agencies seeking bids for services to set aside specific contracts for certified women owned small businesses to achieve a statutory goal of five percent of federal contracting dollars for these entities. The programs have some similarities to set-aside programs for disadvantaged business enterprises (DBEs) currently used by the federal government for construction and other services, or to state and local government programs, often known as MBE, FBE or WBE programs.
To qualify as a WOSB, a firm must be at least fifty-one percent owned and controlled by one or more women, and primarily managed by one or more women. The women must be U.S. citizens and the firm must be considered small according to SBA size standards. The size standards include personal net worth caps. A female owner must manage and control the day-to-day business operations. To be deemed “economically disadvantaged”, a firm’s owners must meet specific financial requirements set forth in the program regulations.
Businesses can either self-certify with the SBA or use an approved third-party certifier, such as National Women Business Owners Corporation, US Women’s Chamber of Commerce or Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC).
Contract opportunities are provided in industries designated by the SBA in which women are underrepresented. A list of covered industries by NAIS Code is linked here. Federal contracting opportunities can be found at http://www.fbo.gov/. Recent examples of contracting opportunities for WOSBs include HVAC installation and repair, waste disposal, interior renovation, and asbestos abatement.
In a ruling on a motion to dismiss, U.S. District Judge Arthur Spiegel found that the Cincinnati Public Schools Could be forced to ignore a state law (H.B. 190, passed in 2007) that prohibited employment by schools of convicted felons and others convicted of drug offenses, no matter how long ago the offenses occurred. Cincinnati Board of Education Case 04-24-2013.pdf . One of the plaintiffs had been convicted of felonious assault and the other of acting as a go-between for the sale of a small amount of marijuana. Both were good employees, according to the school system, and would have been retained except for the state law. There was no claim of intentional discrimination. The district had to terminate ten employees under H.B. 190, and nine of them were African-American.
In these circumstances, Judge Spiegel ruled that the Board had no duty to follow H.B. 190, since "Title VII trumps state law." He rejected the Board's argument that state laws may only be disregarded if they "purport" to discriminate, as well as the contention that adverse impact had to be based on statewide statistics, not just on what had happened in one city. (In part, the reason for the statistical disparity in Cincinnati was that Cincinnati, unlike many other school districts, had been willing to hire minorities with criminal records.)
Because the ruling is on a motion to dismiss, it does not conclusively establish that the Public Schools discriminated, or that the plaintiffs are entitled to relief. They still need to establish valid statistical evidence of a disparate impact and a lack of business necessity. The outcome of those issues is fairly clearly foretold in Judge Spiegel's order. Employers in states where the legislators have passed laws limiting employment opportinities as collateral sanctions for criminal conduct will now have to worry whether they will be caught between state law and Title VII. Whatever the outcome of a dispute over this issue, the employer will lose a great deal of time and money getting to any definite outcome.
According to this article from Politico, the cost of operating the health insurance exchanges, including the costs of providing subsidies to lower-income purchasers of coverage, will increase dramatically over prior estimates. In part, this is because of the failure of some states to embrace the expansion of Medicaid. The cost of Medicaid coverage is $3000 less than the cost of providing subsidies for private insurance on the exchanges, according to current estimates. If insurers then raise premium rates beyond current projections, the difference will grow, and the cost of running exchanges will accelerate. By 2021, the subsidies are now estimated to consume $606 Billion.
Each of the serious immigration reform proposals now being discussed in Washington relies to a great extent on the federal E-Verify system. The notion is that employers will be required to go onto the system, enter personal information about prospective hires and find out from the system whether the employee is entitled to work in the U.S. or not. Employers who do not use the system and hire an individual who is not legally entitled to U.S. employment would face fines and jail time. The employer penalties would reduce the incentive for employers to employ illegals, thereby reducing the incentive for illegal immigration. That all sounds simple and logical, but there are problems.
One problem is that E-Verify is not reliable enough to place prospective employees' livelihoods at stake or to jeopardize the very existence of small businesses. While the "official" error rate is 0.7%, in a recent informal test, twenty U.S. citizens checked themselves on the system and two came up as not eligible (the response is called a "Temporary Non-Confirmation" or TNC). That is a 10% Type 1 error rate. (A Type 1 error is where a person in the "good" category is erroneously categorized as in the "bad" category. A Type 2 error is where a person in the "bad" category is treated as being in the "good" category.) There would be additional errors of Type 2. While a 10% error rate may not sound like much, that equates to a million people out of every ten million perfectly legal job applicants who would be excluded from further consideration for a job, or would be placed in limbo while the E-Verify system performs further checks. Even the 0.7% error rate would exclude over half a million legal job applicants a year. This is simply unacceptable.
That brings up the second big issue--correcting errors. It now takes an average of 100 days to resolve database problems, which often result from marriage-related name changes or misspellings on federal forms. If E-Verify becomes mandatory, the task of resolving millions of problems is likely to drastically increase the time needed to correct system errors. Employers and employees alike will be effectively left in limbo during this period. Even 100 days (more than three full months) is too long.
Third, these problems with E-Verify, coupled with the draconian fines and penalties contained in some of the proposals (Title X of the White House proposal has fines of up to $75,000 and TEN YEARS in prison!) will discourage employers from hiring in the U.S. except as a last resort. Robots do not require employment verifications, and off shore operations do not need E-Verify checks.
These problems are not insoluble. Phased implementation of E-Verify requirements, based upon independent performance metrics of the system's accuracy and time to resolve discrepancies, would be one measure. Adequate "safe-harbor" provisions for employers who use E-Verify would help. Resonable allowances for employers and employees to be productive while E-Verify TNC's are resolved would avoid unnecessary hardship. The essential requirement for any of these measures to be adopted, though, is for Congress and the White House to recognize the reality of the current shortcomings of E-Verify. Assuming, as they are apparently doing, that it is some magic formula for solving all the issues of employee identity is folly and will lead to serious economic consequences.
Individuals can click here to access the E-Verify system in order to perform a self-check.
Much attention has been given to the looming "Fiscal Cliff" and the perils of across the board sequestration. Most commentators feel that the fiscal cliff will be avoided in some way. The possibility of new regulations from the second-term Obama Administration that will impact small business success, profitability and growth has not been sufficiently covered. I wrote an opinion piece for the Washington Post that was published earlier today on that issue.
The NLRB, in a 2-1 decision Iron Tiger Logistics NLRB 10-23-12.pdf, extended the duty to respond to union requests for information to cover requests for information that is found to be irrelevant to legitimate bargaining concerns. Prior cases had found employers who delayed in turning over relevant information to have violated the Act by delaying their responses. In Iron Tiger, the Board majority (Chairman Pearce and Member Block) found that even if the information requested turns out to be irrelevant, the employer has a duty to respond in a timely fashion on pain of violating its duty to bargain in good faith. The policy justification for the rule is that the employer can avoid a dispute and resulting Board charges if it states its position right away and allows the union to withdraw or modify its request. They observed that, had the employer done so in the case before them, "an unnecessary dispute could have been avoided."
The dissenting Board member (Member Hayes) agreed that it would be preferable for an employer to respond quickly, but he could not find a duty under the Act to respond to requests for irrelevant information. He stated, "Ultimately, requested information is either legally relevant to a union's representative duties, or it is not. If it is not, then the statutory duty to bargain in good faith is not implicated by the request or the employer's failure to respond timely to the request." Member Hayes also observed that the Board majority's decision gives unions yet another tool "to hector employers with information requests for tactical purposes that obstruct, rather than further, good faith bargaining relationships."
Employers who are confronted with demands for information that they believe seek irrelevant information should therefore say so without undue delay. The alternative is to risk an unfair labor practice finding. In connection with some other activity (such as a strike) a finding of a failure to bargain by refusing to give a timely response to an improper union information request could be enough to turn an economic strike into an unfair labor practice strike. The consequence for an employer who responds to the strike by hiring replacements could be significant.
In 2010, OSHA began a program to identify certain employers as severe violators. Placement in the Severe Violator Enforcement Program ("SVEP") resulted in adverse publicity, multiple inspections, inspections of other facilities and higher-than-normal penalties. Not surprisingly, there were a number of criticisms of the program. One of them was that the program had no established way to get off it. OSHA has now issued formal guidance on this issue that can be found here. OSHA's Directorate of Enforcement Programs ("DEP") has determined that employers can get out of the program after three years from the final disposition of the inspection items that resulted in placement in the SVEP. Final disposition includes failures to contest the citation, settlements, unappealed Review Commission decisions, and Court of Appeals decisions. To escape the SVEP, the employer must have fully abated all SVEP-related citations at any of its establishments. All penalties must have been fully paid. For cases with national corporate-wide settlements, the DEP will handle requests for removal, and will consider all terms of the settlement (which usually would include safety programs and outside consultancies. See the Guidelines for Administering Corporate-Wide Settlement Agreements, here) For more local situations, the Regional Administrator or designee will have discretion to remove employers from the list.
Supreme Court Upholds Affordable Care Act's Individual Mandate as a Tax, Invalidates Penalty of Loss of Medicaid Funds to States That Opt out of Expansion
The Supreme Court earlier today issued its long-awaited decision on the constitutionality of two aspects of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, often referred to as the ACA or Obamacare. In a majority decision written by Chief Justice Roberts, the Court found that the provision in the ACA requiring individuals to purchase insurance or pay a penalty could be justified under the Constitution as tax. A majority of the Court found that the mandate could not be justified as a legitimate exercise of Congressional power under the Commerce Clause.
Seven members of the Court also found that the expansion of Medicaid to many new categories of beneficiaries, coupled with the threat of loss of all existing federal subsidies for current Medicaid benefits, was beyond Congress' power, and hence unconstitutional. Three of those justices joined with the two justices who found the Medicaid expansion terms to be constitutional to find that simply eliminating the threat of loss of existing Medicare subsidies would correct the problem. These five justices thus wrote out the ability of the administration to impose the penalty upon states who choose not to participate in the expansion.
The Court's decision means that the ACA will take effect as scheduled, with the individual mandate, the employer mandate, community rating and Medicare cuts all intact. In those states that elect not to participate in the Medicaid expansion, there will be potential problems. The ACA has no backup mechanism for providing coverage for those who are eliglible by income for Medicaid, but who cannot get coverage due to a refusal of their state to participate. This will leave them uninsured (and ineligible to participate in the Exchanges at subsidized premium rates.) That means that providers may continue to have higher than expected uncompensated care, at the same time that their federal assistance to pay for uncompensated care is being cut.
In any case, the bottom line of the health insurance/health care market is that it was too expensive for consumers and employers before the ACA; the ACA did not do anywhere near enough to reduce the costs, or even to slow the increase in costs; and this decision does nothing to control costs, and may contribute to increasing them. Just because the Supreme Court upheld most of the ACA, it does not mean that system is fixed. Our nation still has much to do to create a sensible, affordable health care financing system, and it is long past time for our representatives to get busy on that project.
This post was authored by Inna Shelley.
On June 21, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) issued a Hazard Alert addressing the health risks of exposure to airborne silica for workers employed on hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” sites, in a process used to extract oil and gas. Sand used in fracking contains up to 99% silica.
Recent NIOSH field studies revealed that many fracking workers were overexposed to silica dust. Exposure often occurs during the transportation, on-site moving, and loading of sand into containers, belts, and blender hoppers. Although employees directly involved in these operations and those working downwind had the highest silica exposures, even upwind workers outside of the immediate areas had exposures above NIOSH-recommended levels.
Silica exposure poses many serious health risks including lung cancer and silicosis, a lung disease where lung tissue around trapped silica causes inflammation and scarring, hindering proper oxygen intake. Other diseases linked to silica exposure include tuberculosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and kidney and autoimmune diseases.
The Alert advocates that employers implement a combination of engineering controls, work practices, protective equipment, product substitution, and worker training to reduce exposure and protect workers. To this end, the Alert recommends a series of specific process and equipment changes, including several short-term solutions susceptible to quick implementation. Monitoring of occupational exposure to silica and medical monitoring of exposed workers is also suggested.
Smaller employers with 250 employees at a given site, and no more than 500 employees nationwide, are invited to take advantage of OSHA’s free On-Site Consultation Program. This program helps small businesses to identify and correct worksite hazards and provides free, confidential advice without the risk of triggering enforcement, penalties, or citations.
Fracking is an increasingly common and growing practice in the oil and gas industry. As a result, the issuance of this Hazard Alert focusing on medical hazards and solutions specific to fracking suggests that OSHA and NIOSH may target the fracking industry in future enforcement efforts, as well as focus on other industries where silica exposure is likely. Employers whose workers face occupational silica exposure should stay ahead of these developments by carefully reviewing the exposure risk, evaluating the feasibility of specific safety measures suggested in the Alert, and implementing measures to protect workers from silica exposure as part of their health and safety practices.