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Washington Update

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For most of 2013, Congress continued to be mired in the political gridlock that has gripped Washington for over a decade. A handful of employment-based bills moved quickly through the House, only to become derailed by the Democratic-controlled Senate—once nicknamed “the world’s most deliberative body.” On the reverse end, comprehensive (and bi-partisan) immigration reform legislation passed the Senate in June, only to be labeled “dead on arrival” when House Speaker John Boehner remarked the House would never take up the Senate-passed bill.

But the pace (and level of bipartisanship) changed quickly after Washington weathered an 18-day government shutdown in October and, as part of the deal that ended the shutdown, agreed that both the House and Senate would consider an omnibus, 1,500-page 2014 spending bill to fund the federal government through September 30, 2014. The passage of the bill (which was signed into law by President Barack Obama on January 17), represents the first government spending bill to pass Congress since 2011, and it guarantees that the threat of any future government shutdown over funding is averted until at least the end of the year.

One issue that failed to muster bipartisan support in the end-of-year negotiations was extending long-term unemployment insurance for more than 1.3 million Americans whose benefits expired on December 28. While the Senate has tried to move a stand-alone bill on the issue for the past month, efforts to do so thus far have been blocked by a GOP filibuster and it’s unlikely the House (at least for now) has the stomach to agree to an extension without offsetting cuts in federal spending.

Turning to what’s in store for workplace issues in 2014, President Obama delivered his fifth State of the Union Address last evening and he outlined several policy priorities for this year which are all too familiar to the HR profession. From immigration reform, raising the minimum wage, tax reform, pay equity and extending unemployment insurance for the long-term unemployed, the president made it clear that he is willing to use the executive order process, where possible, if Congress fails to act. That’s why this year presents an unique opportunity for the HR sector to engage in and shape future public policies that will be implemented in the workplace.

That engagement began last evening during the State of the Union when SHRM and the Council for Global Immigration’s Government Affairs Teams hosted a live Twitter chat with HR and in-house immigration professionals that our respective organizations collectively represent. Overall, the online chat #HRSOTU resulted in 2,000 tweets from 334 participants in the span of 90 minutes! The most popular tweet from HR professionals was “Jobs (HR), education (HR), wages (HR), immigration (HR), Obamacare (HR), retirement (HR) - see a trend? #HRSOTU”

And in addition to the chat, Peter Mouskondis President and CEO, Nicholas & Company, Inc., located in Salt Lake City, UT,—a recipient of the Sloan Award for Excellence in Workplace Effectiveness and Flexibility—was seated at the event in the box with the First Lady, Dr. Jill Biden and Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to the President. Since 2005, the Sloan Awards have been recognizing model employers of all types and sizes across the U.S. for their innovative and effective workplace practices. The Sloan Awards are part of When Work Works, a research-based initiative to highlight how effective and flexible workplaces can yield positive business results and help employees succeed at work and at home. When Work Works is a joint partnership between Families and Work Institute (FWI) and SHRM.

One bill that that was highlighted in the president's remarks and almost certain to get a vote in the Senate this year is Sen. Tom Harkin's (D-IA) proposal S. 406, which would increase the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. A similar bill is pending in the House sponsored by Rep. George Miller (D-CA).  Both Miller and Harkin are retiring from Congress this year. If the Senate bill is successful, there will be intense pressure for the GOP-led House to take up the bill this summer.
Shifting to the House, SHRM and others in the business community are hopeful the chamber will soon begin consideration of immigration reform legislation (in what form, it remains unclear). While it is doubtful it will consider the omnibus bill passed last summer by the Senate, there have been rumblings of late within the House leadership that Speaker Boehner and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) will be announcing a set of GOP-embraced immigration reform standards soon.
We're hopeful one of those principles will call for a fully enhanced and improved employment verification policy that will strengthen the E-Verify program to address the issue of identity theft in the employment process. One such approach is the use of knowledge-based authentication procedures similar to the one banks and investment companies already use to ensure the identity of customers.
Other issues that SHRM and its strategic partner, the Council for Global Immigration, are advocating for in the immigration debate include:

New robust green card levels in The Border Security, Economic Opportunity & Immigration Modernization Act (S. 744) that addresses backlogs and future flows.
Expansion of the STEM definition in S. 744 and the SKILLS Visa Act (H.R. 2131) to provide critical access to cap exempt professionals in biological and biomedical science.
H-1B cap increases in S. 744 and H.R. 2131, providing employers with more predictability to plan for today’s rapidly changing workforce needs.
The omission of H-1B and L-1 outplacement restrictions and additional recruitment requirements in H.R. 2131.
The creation of a Trusted Employer program in H.R. 2131.

We remain hopeful that Congress can agree on some form or immigration reform legislation in 2014. Our advocacy efforts in the House will continue to focus on expanding employer access to talent, providing employers with the tools they need to hire a legal workforce and creating critical immigration processing efficiencies.

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