Some Thoughts on the Meaning of a Second Obama Term for Labor and Employment Law

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Category: Labor & Employment Law, Political Processes & Rhetoric, President & Executive Branch, Public
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In light of President Obama’s resounding re-election victory last night, and other developments in political races down the ticket, here are some of my initial thoughts on what might happen in the labor and employment law area during a second Obama administration:

First, I think the verdict is still very much out on  whether there will be any significant changes regarding labor and employment legal initiatives in President Obama’s second term.  It is interesting that the President did not spend too much time during the campaign, or in his victory speech last night, discussing worker rights or unions.

On the one hand, the Congress remains bitterly divided between the two parties which means that labor law reform in the form of the Employee Free Choice Act is highly unlikely, as well as updates to the employment discrimination laws, like adding sexual orientation as a protected classification under Title VII or addressing “qualified individuals” under the Americans with Disabilities Act.  I also do not envision major changes to the FMLA or OSHA in a second term, though I suspect there will be additional attempts to amend the Equal Pay Act by trying to get the Paycheck Fairness Act passed.

On the other hand, there will be plenty of room for agency decisionmakers to work on the margins and within their own domains.  

On the employee benefit law front, I see significant developments concerning the promulgation of a broader definition of fiduciary status under ERISA and the promulgation of regulations regarding life income options under 401K pension plans.   There might also be legislation addressing the current funding crisis surrounding multiemployer (Taft-Hartley) pension and welfare benefit plans.  Of course, a second Obama administration will also mean further development of regulations under the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), including those that impact the provision of employer-provided health benefits.

On the traditional labor front, I suspect that there will continue to be controversy over the selection of NLRB members. Nevertheless, expect an Obama Board (members continued to be recess appointed) to continue to push for new election and posting rules, the development of more social media guidance, and the reconsideration of some important labor law issues (including issues involving the status of graduate assistants under the NLRA, employer captive audience meetings, and  the Weingarten rights of non-union employees).  The EEOC, for its part, may continue to consider a host of issues involving everything from LGBT rights to the steps necessary to accommodate the disabilities of employees.

So, expect much of the same as far as labor and employment law in a Second Obama term.  Not much legislation, with most important developments happening through federal agency adjudications and rulemaking.

I should add two more notes.  First, the United States Supreme Court could go through a fundamental change depending on which Justices leave the Court in the next four years. If President Obama is able to appoint a left-leaning bench, you might see many more pro-employee judicial decisions in areas from the class action treatment of employment discrimination claims, to the extent and nature of relief available under ERISA, to a reconsideration of burden-shifting proof schemes under Title VII and related employment discrimination laws.

Second, my analysis does not touch on the many labor and employment law developments that will likely happen on the state and local level. There was a decidely mixed bag for state-level developments in labor and employment law last night (see California and Michigan, for example). I would suspect that we will see many developments on the non-federal side of things revolving around everything from right-to-work legislation to public pension reform to attempts to restore/take away collective bargaining rights of public sector workers.

In any event, just my two cents and stay tuned!

Cross posted at Workplace Law Prof.

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