Before the Senate adjourned for the August recess, two Democratic members tried to force the chamber to agree to bring minimum wage, paid sick leave, and flexible scheduling bills to the floor for a vote in the fall. On Wednesday, Sens. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) asked for unanimous consent that by October 30, 2015, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) be discharged from further considering the Raise the Wage Act (S. 1150), Healthy Families Act (S. 497), and the Schedules That Work Act (S. 1772), and allow the bills to proceed to the Senate floor for a vote.  The HELP Committee has jurisdiction over employment-related legislation, and must approve such bills before discharging them to the full Senate for consideration. Predictably, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), on behalf of HELP Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN), objected to this move, officially thwarting the attempt. The effort to push these employment bills through, however, lays the groundwork for themes sure to surface time and again before the 2016 election.

The bills at issue are as follows:

  • The Raise the Wage Act would increase the federal minimum wage, in increments, to $12 an hour by the year 2020, and provide for yearly increases thereafter. The bill would also increase to $3.15 the hourly rate paid to tipped employees by January 1, 2016.
  • The Healthy Families Act would require certain employers to permit each employee to earn at least one hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours worked. Small employers would be permitted to opt out of this requirement, but would still be required to provide unpaid sick leave.
  • The Schedules That Work Act would entitle most employees to request changes to their work hours, locations, and advance notice of on-call time, and prevent employers from retaliating against employees that make such requests. A covered employer (one with 15 or more workers) would be required to engage in a good-faith interactive process to consider and respond to the schedule change request. If the desired schedule change is made on account of a health condition, child or elder care, a second job, continued education, or job training, the employer would be required to approve the request unless it has a legitimate business reason deny the request. The bill would also require employers to provide certain hourly workers in the food service, cleaning, and retail industries two weeks' advance notice of their work schedules. Employees required to be "on call" without the guarantee of additional work would be entitled to additional pay, as would employees who are sent home early, are scheduled for a “split shift;” or receive changes to their schedule with less than 24 hours’ notice. 

Companion bills for each of these measures have been introduced in the House of Representatives.

Given the makeup of Congress, none of these bills were expected to advance. The eleventh-hour effort to force the Senate's hand can be seen as a bit of political theater. In remarks made on the Senate floor on August 4, Sen. Warren expressed hope that these bills would "move forward" before Senators left Washington for the summer recess. Warren emphasized that she has "joined with my colleagues over the past few months in introducing several bills that would restore some much-needed economic security and stability to millions of workers," and made a point to distinguish Democratic efforts on the employment front from that of Republicans. "What have the Republicans done over the past six months to try to make families a little more secure, to give people a fighting chance? What have they done?"

Sen. Alexander countered that the Democrats’ proposals to impose new employment mandates were “designed to make it harder to hire and harder to find work." In a statement, Alexander touted Republican efforts to reform employment law, including:

  • The Forty Hours Is Full Time Act of 2015, which would increase from 30 to 40 the number of hours an employee must work per week to be considered "full-time" under the Affordable Care Act.
  • The Working Family Flexibility Act, which would allow private-sector employers to offer their employees the option of comp time in lieu of overtime pay.

While November 2016 seems like a long way off, politicians on both sides of the aisle are busy building their campaign platforms and working on their election narratives. Expect the debate in Congress and on the campaign trail over competing workplace legislation to continue in the months to come.