President-elect Donald Trump will assume office on January 20, 2017, with a Republican majority in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. While it is difficult to predict whether the new administration will be able to deliver on President-elect Trump’s campaign promises, we can expect significant policy and enforcement shifts. For example, judicial appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court and other federal courts will have significant and far-reaching implications. This analysis focuses on the likely dramatic impact of the Trump Administration on workplace law.
The U.S. Supreme Court has been operating with eight justices since the sudden passing of Justice Antonin Scalia in February. There also are many judicial vacancies on the federal bench. President-elect Trump likely will appoint judges more inclined to preserve the strict certification standards for class actions and rein in novel interpretations of laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (e.g., on disparate impact and reasonable accommodation issues).
Federal agencies increasingly have been aggressive and controversial in their enforcement methods. Under new leadership in the Department of Labor (DOL), the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP), among others, one can expect a return to traditional, more conservative theories of discrimination previously recognized by federal courts. We may see the EEOC ease its systemic discrimination enforcement activity and enforcement position on the ADA, Title VII, and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. An important issue to watch is the EEOC’s position on Title VII’s application to LGBT issues. Corporate diversity and inclusion programs are not likely to be affected by the new administration, as they are driven much more by demographic changes in the population, labor force, and marketplace and risk management considerations, and much less by federal law and policy in the short-term.
Further, the focus of current controversial regulatory action will change. New DOL leadership may revisit recent DOL proposed or implemented regulations, including those subject to court injunctions. Congress may also now pass legislation to repeal the new DOL overtime rule that raises the salary level for exempt employees effective December 1, 2016, and President-elect Trump might agree. Ongoing challenges to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) final rules (e.g., silica and the electronic recordkeeping rule) may result in settlements that lessen the regulatory impact of the rules. Aggressive enforcement coupled with significant publicity and fines have been key tools implemented by the current administration. Under new leadership, these agencies may ease back on such aggressive approaches and offer greater cooperation to the employer community as they try to balance the purposes of the law with business realities.
Executive Orders and Actions
President-elect Trump has announced an intention to undo President Barack Obama’s Executive Orders, many of which impose significant employment-related prohibitions and requirements on government contractors. The new administration likely will rescind at least some of those Executive Orders, chief among them the controversial Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces Executive Order.
In addition, President-elect Trump has stated he will reverse the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) Executive Actions. It is unclear whether this would only address the enjoined executive relief programs or also include revocation of work authorization documents for currently eligible workers under DACA.
EEO-1 Pay Data Reporting
Final rules revising the EEO-1 report to add W-2 earnings and work hours reporting are scheduled to go into effect in early 2018. The new administration may consider rescinding the changes before first reporting is due in 2018 or revising the reporting to ease the burden on employers.
National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)
Currently, the NLRB has a 2-1 Democratic majority, with two vacant seats. Since the President traditionally has had the opportunity to appoint Board members to achieve a majority along political lines, the open seats likely will be filled by Trump appointees. This will create a more business-oriented NLRB. A new Board with a Republican majority is likely to revisit recent NLRB rules and decisions, including those covering (1) class action waivers, (2) joint employers, (3) inclusion of temporary workers in bargaining units with an employer’s regular workers, (4) quickie elections, (5) expansion of protected concerted activity (e.g., its impact on workplace policies), (6) definition of appropriate bargaining units, and (7) status of college/university adjunct faculty, graduate students, and student athletes. The new Board also may not make additional changes the current Board would make, such as extending Weingarten rights to non-union workplaces and making misclassification of employees as independent contractors a separate violation of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). In addition, the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA) “persuader” regulations, which are currently enjoined, may be revisited.
Sarbanes-Oxley Act and Dodd-Frank Act
During the campaign, President-elect Trump singled out the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010 (DFA) as making it impossible for banks to lend money to businesses for the purpose of creating jobs. A repeal of the DFA might encourage Congress and the Securities and Exchange Commission to rely more heavily on the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (SOX) whistleblower provisions and thus mandate that corporate compliance programs, as developed by publicly traded companies, be increasingly robust, providing for greater “self-regulation.” Further SEC enforcement actions regarding confidentiality agreements likely will decrease.
Affordable Care Act (ACA)
President-elect Trump has vowed to repeal and replace the ACA. The extent to which this comes to fruition, the timing of any dismantling efforts, and the types of replacements that are offered will be of utmost importance to employers. While there has been much mentioned in broad brush strokes about a full repeal, it is unlikely that that can or will occur. Alternatives, such as the reliance on private healthcare savings accounts, market-based universal coverage and allowing for insurance plans to be offered across state lines have been floated, however, there is no Republican consensus on what the path away from the ACA will look like. Employers will be eager to see what is done to change and lessen employer obligations under the ACA, but for the meantime, will have to stay the course.
The DOL’s fiduciary rule concerning the expanded definition of who is considered a fiduciary under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) and the Internal Revenue Code, as well as certain exemptions addressing conflicts of interest, also may be subjected to increased scrutiny in light of the President-elect’s opposition to the current administration’s financial initiatives and, more generally, “unnecessary” regulations. It is hard to determine at this point where these types of regulations on fiduciary status and conduct will rank among a long list of priorities for the new administration.
Federal Tax Reform
President-elect Trump has promised sweeping federal tax reform, including tax cuts for corporations. While the viability of implementing such changes rests with the Republican Congress, the lack of specificity as to what tax reform would look like under the new administration leaves many questions. These questions include how tax reform may affect benefits plans and arrangements, such as qualified retirement plans, fringe benefits, and executive compensation arrangements.
The new administration may focus on expanding enforcement of existing immigration laws in the workplace, which may include encouraging more employers to use E-Verify under existing law, as well as working with Congress to expand mandatory use of E-Verify. Under current federal law, E-Verify is voluntary for employers, except as mandated by executive order for federal government contractors.
The new administration may suspend temporarily the issuance of visas to certain countries and regions designated as high risk. President-elect Trump has indicated he will ask the Department of State, Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Justice to begin a comprehensive review of high-risk visa cases to develop a list of regions and countries for which visa issuance will be suspended until a proven and effective vetting mechanism is implemented. Individuals from countries such as Syria, Iraq, Libya, and other designated high-risk areas, or individuals who have traveled to such countries, will face even longer delays obtaining visas for both short- and long-term travel to the U.S. In addition, global mobility may be affected if the U.S. restricts or delays business visas, resulting in reciprocal treatment by the affected countries.
U.S. companies operating in major European markets and other countries with strong labor interests may encounter increasingly complex labor relations and works council issues, as the United States is perceived as more nationalistic and less deferential to local employee protections. Further, there may be increasing pressure from foreign vendors, suppliers, customers, and employees on U.S. companies to certify that they will comply with ILO standards.
The new administration is unlikely to continue attempts to prohibit non-compete agreements we have seen from the White House over the past months, at least on a federal level. On a state level, legislatures still may respond to the Obama Administration’s “call to action” and introduce measures to curb the use of non-compete agreements, as, for example, has been promised by New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.
The “Antitrust Guidance for Human Resource Professionals,” issued by the Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission, is not likely to continue as a priority for the new administration. The guidance promised criminal prosecution of human resource professionals who, for example, enter into “naked” no-poach agreements.
Trade Secret Protection
Adding to the bi-partisan federal Defend Trade Secrets Act, which provided a civil right of action under the Economic Espionage Act, a new administration may adopt protectionist policies, bringing further enforcement efforts to misappropriation of trade secrets flowing to foreign powers, including to China.
President-elect Trump has expressed a desire to reduce, rather than increase regulation. However, political party hacking and unfavorable email dumps from WikiLeaks, coupled with continued data breaches affecting privacy and public sector entities, may prompt the new President and Congress to do more. Politics aside, cybersecurity is a top national security concern, and it is having a significant impact on private sector risk management strategies and individual security.
DOL Opinion Letters
The long-standing practice of the Administrator of the Wage and Hour Division of the DOL issuing official opinion letters regarding application of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) upon which employers rely may make a comeback. In recent years, the DOL had stopped issuing opinion letters, choosing instead to issue less frequent “Administrator Interpretations” with wider applicability and scope, but less specificity. Two significant Administrator Interpretations concerned “joint employment” and “independent contractor” status under the FLSA. Both have been viewed as clear efforts to expand the rights of workers under the law and place additional burdens on employers. New opinion letters are issued on a variety of topics and could scale-back or withdraw the Obama Administrator Interpretations, permitting employers greater flexibility in using independent contractors and giving business more certainty in expanding through use of franchises.
The President-elect has been critical of excessive and unnecessary government regulation in such areas as health care, energy, and the environment. We may see a decreased investigatory focus in these areas, and fewer federal prosecutions of health care organizations, pharmaceutical companies, and manufacturers.
Focused on security and protecting the homeland, the new administration may enhance emphasis on international terrorism investigations, import/export violations, and immigration offenses.
Given his pledge to improve life in “inner city” areas, we should expect greater resources and attention to be devoted to the prosecutions of criminal activity by violent gangs and an effort to address crimes that affect the daily lives of the residents of America’s cities.
An important question for many, especially those that operate in multiple states and must comply with the current patchwork of state laws on data breach and sick leave, for example, is whether a federal law that supersedes state law is likely. With Republicans in control of the executive and legislative branches, that remains to be seen.