DOL Budget Emphasizes Enforcement

President ObamaThe U.S. Department of Labor has released the president’s fiscal year 2015 budget request, which seems to sharpen the DOL’s focus on enforcing federal employment and labor regulations.

The release comes just weeks after a State of the Union Address in which President Barack Obama stressed, among other things, the need to create more jobs and help workers develop the skills they need to fill them. In a DOL statement, the department outlines plans to do that and more.

The DOL describes the budget as including “funding and reforms that will better prepare workers for jobs; protect their wages, working conditions and safety; provide a safety net for those who lose their jobs or are hurt on the job; and promote secure retirements.”

For example, the fiscal year 2015 budget aims to:

• Support reforms to improve training and employment programs, in an effort to help workers gain skills and return to work more quickly.

• Create additional jobs and careers by catalyzing new partnerships between community colleges and employers. The Opportunity, Growth and Security Initiative includes $1.5 billion in 2015 to support a four-year, $6 billion community college job-driven training fund to launch new training programs and apprenticeships designed to prepare participants for in-demand jobs and careers.

• Reach the long-term unemployed by proposing mandatory funding for a Job-Driven Training for Youth and the Long-Term Unemployed Initiative, consisting of programs targeted at allowing individuals to continue receiving unemployment insurance benefits while participating in short-term work placements.

The DOL also announced significant investments to be made in the department’s worker protection agencies, such as:

• nearly $14 million to combat the misclassification of workers as independent contractors;

• $565 million for OSHA to foster employer compliance with safety and health regulations and inspect hazardous workplaces, as well as strengthening its protection of whistleblowers against retaliation for reporting unsafe and unscrupulous practices; and

• a $41 million increase for the Wage and Hour division, to ensure workers receive appropriate wages and overtime pay.

Although many of the proposals contained in the budget “are more aspirational than [predictive of] actual policy changes, they do provide insight into what the agencies are prioritizing for the coming year,” says Ben Huggett, a Philadelphia-based attorney with employment and labor law firm Littler.

For employers and HR, this year’s DOL budget is most notable in that it “reflects the agency’s continued emphasis on enforcement,” says Huggett.

The proposal, he says, would grant the DOL $11.8 billion in discretionary funding, “much of which would support the enforcement of wage and hour, worker misclassification, whistleblower and employment safety laws.”

The boost to the Wage and Hour division is one of the “most significant and substantive proposals” put forth in the 2015 budget, he adds.

“This funding increase is in large part to pay for an additional 300 WHD investigators who would use risk-based approaches to target the industries and employers most likely to break the law.”

Huggett also singled out the possibility of a $13 million budget increase for OSHA in 2015 (bringing its total budget to $565 million) as indicative of the DOL’s commitment to enforcement.

“Approximately $21 million of this allocation would be used to enforce the various whistleblower statutes under OSHA’s authority,” he says. “When combined with last year’s rollout of an electronic web-based complaint form, it is clear that OSHA’s administration of the 22 different whistleblower statutes will continue to be a significant emphasis for the agency.”

The budget request will likely encounter criticism in Congress, where a number of proposals are likely to be rejected or modified, says Huggett.

Nevertheless, he adds, the budget request “confirms that employers can expect the aggressive enforcement of federal employment and labor laws to continue.”