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The Workplace Agenda Campaigns Overlook HR Issues

Topics such as pay, leave and benefits are pocketbook issues that influence votes, but for the most part, Republican nominee John McCain and Democratic nominee Barack Obama haven’t devoted much campaign time to them.

August 31, 2008
Related Topics: Immigration, Compensation Design and Communication, Wages and Hours

So far in the presidential race, the faltering economy has dominated the debate, with energy policy consuming most of the candidates’ attention.

    Topics such as pay, leave and benefits are pocketbook issues that influence votes, but for the most part, Republican nominee John McCain and Democratic nominee Barack Obama haven’t devoted much campaign time to them.

    "We would like to see more detail from the candidates on what they’re proposing," says Cara Woodson Welch, director of public policy at WorldatWork, a human resources professional association that provides training and education in a range of compensation and benefits areas.

    WorldatWork is going to reach out to each campaign. "We would love it if they would answer some of the questions our members have," Welch says.

    Workers also want to see McCain and Obama address kitchen-table concerns, according to a poll by the Marlin Co., an employee communications consulting firm.

    In a May survey of 755 people, 23 percent agreed with the statement "My financial situation has distracted me on the job," while 77 percent responded that the political system doesn’t represent their interests "as an American worker."

    That sentiment creates a "huge opportunity" for the candidates to offer solutions, but they haven’t so far, says Frank Kenna III, president of the Marlin Co. in Wallingford, Connecticut.

    "In terms of workplace issues, I’m not seeing anything, almost nothing," Kenna says.

    Even though such discussion isn’t taking place on the campaign trail, employment legislation will be prominent in 2009.

    Democratic majorities are likely to increase in the House and the Senate, resulting in a strong push for bills that would facilitate unionization, expand employee leave and make it easier to sue for discrimination (and increase the associated penalties).

    "Next year will be one of the most challenging periods for HR in recent memory, regardless of who wins the election," says Dan Yager, senior vice president and general counsel of the HR Policy Association in Washington.

    Although they may not dwell on employment topics, Obama and McCain would take different approaches.

    Generally speaking, Obama favors an activist government that would take the lead in ensuring pay equity, raising wages, expanding leave, increasing pension coverage and strengthening unions.

    McCain doesn’t mention any of those areas in a paper titled "Jobs for America: The McCain Economic Plan." In that document, he focuses on gas and food prices and the mortgage crisis. He calls for cutting government spending, reducing taxes and reforming health care.

    His reticence on workplace matters—and opposition to government intervention—reflects his conservative tendency to depend on the private sector for answers.

    But to Obama, issues such as pay equity provide an opportunity to connect with an important Democratic constituency—and one that he needs to woo after a bruising battle with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-New York, for the Democratic nomination.

    For instance, Obama supports a bill that would reset the statute of limitations each time a worker receives a paycheck that is diminished by discrimination, regardless of when the discriminatory act occurred. He also backs a bill that would allow women to sue for punitive and compensatory damages if they suffer pay discrimination.

    McCain supports equal pay for equal work but warns against legislative solutions that he says would encourage lawsuits.

    Obama also takes an expansive approach in other areas. He would raise the federal minimum wage to $9.50 an hour and expand the Family and Medical Leave Act to cover businesses with 25 or more employees, down from the current 50, and to allow more reasons for time away from the office. He would require that employers provide seven days of paid sick leave per year. He would set up a $1.5 billion fund to encourage states to adopt paid-leave policies. If companies don’t offer a retirement plan, he would require them to automatically enroll employees in a direct-deposit individual retirement account.

    Both McCain and Obama have voiced support for flexible work schedules and support amending the Americans with Disabilities Act to ensure a broad interpretation of the law. They both favor giving shareholders a vote on executive pay.

    McCain and Obama also tend to take similar tacks on immigration. McCain was co-author of the Senate’s comprehensive immigration plan last year that included a path to legalization for undocumented workers. His position cost him support among conservatives who wanted to focus solely on border security and workplace crackdowns.

    Now McCain is stressing enforcement first before enacting a guest-worker program and addressing the issue of illegal immigrants. Obama favors comprehensive reform but doesn’t emphasize his position on the campaign trail.

    Stark differences between the candidates exist on organized labor. McCain voted against a bill that would make it easier to form unions; Obama voted in favor.

    They also diverge on the issue of outsourcing. Obama is co-sponsor of a bill that would provide a tax credit to companies that maintain their American employment, provide a retirement plan that matches at least 5 percent of worker contributions and pay 60 percent of employee health care premiums.

    Obama is a skeptic of trade agreements and has called for renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement among the United States, Canada and Mexico because he believes it has hurt U.S. workers.

    McCain is an ardent advocate of trade liberalization. For workers who lose their jobs because of international competition, he would transform the unemployment insurance system into a program for retraining and bolster community colleges to provide training for local jobs.

    Outsourcing is another area that’s not getting as much attention from the nominees as the public is demanding, according to one survey. In an April poll of 1,125 workers by the Employment Law Alliance, 86 percent favored making it "harder for U.S. companies to outsource American jobs to foreign countries."

    Pay concerns just edged outsourcing. Eighty-seven percent of the respondents indicated that it was important to increase the number of Americans earning "a living wage."

    "Neither of these issues seems to be resonating with either campaign—maybe because they don’t have the answers," says Steve Hirschfeld, CEO of the Employment Law Alliance. "I’m not sure from a political standpoint that it’s real smart to get too far out front."

Workforce Management, September 8, 2008 -- Subscribe Now!

Recent Articles by Mark Schoeff Jr.

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