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House Education and Labor Committee approves three bills designed to help workers

By Pamela Wolf, J.D.

The bills would protect worker retirement benefits, loosen the burden of proof in age discrimination claims, and take action to protect healthcare and social service workers from workplace violence.

On June 11, the House Committee on Education and Labor gave its approval to a triad of bills that proponents say would improve the quality of life for workers and retirees: The Rehabilitation for Multiemployer Pensions Act (H.R. 397); the Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act (POWADA) (H.R. 1230); and the Workplace Violence Prevention for Health Care and Social Service Workers Act (H.R. 1309).

Rehabilitation for Multiemployer Pensions Act. Introduced on January 9, 2019, the bipartisan H.R. 397, also known as “Butch Lewis,” is aimed at preventing the imminent catastrophic collapse of multiemployer pension funds while protecting retirees’ benefits and saving taxpayers billions of dollars.

Under the bill, a Pension Rehabilitation Administration would be established within the Department of the Treasury, as well as a related trust fund to make loans to certain multiemployer defined benefit pension plans. To receive a loan, a plan would have to be either in critical and declining status or insolvent, if the plan became insolvent after December 16, 2014, and has not been terminated.

Treasury would be required to issue bonds to fund the loan program and transfer amounts equal to the proceeds to the trust fund established by the bill. The Pension Rehabilitation Administration would be able to use the funds without a further appropriation, to make loans, pay principal and interest on the bonds, or for administrative and operating expenses.

Multiemployer pension plan sponsors applying for a loan under the bill would also be able to apply to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation for financial assistance if, after receiving the loan, the plan would will still become or remain insolvent within the 30-year period beginning on the date of the loan.

Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act. Introduced on February 14, 2019, H.R. 1230 also enjoys bipartisan support. The legislation would ensure that older Americans can work free from discrimination by changing what bill sponsors see as the “unreasonably high” burden of proof required for proving age discrimination in employment. The bill would change the burden of proof for age discrimination claims to once again line up with the standard applied currently in claims of discrimination based on sex, race, and national origin.

The legislation would roll back the Supreme Court’s 2009 decision in Gross v. FBL Financial Services, Inc., which proponents say has weakened protections against age discrimination under the ADEA. The measure would return to the pre-2009 evidentiary threshold applied in discrimination claims, replacing the Gross “but-for” test with the mixed-motive test that courts applied prior to 2009, according to a fact sheet.

The bill would amend the ADEA, Title VII, the ADA, and the Rehab Act to make sure that all victims of discrimination—including older workers—can have their claims “adjudicated fairly without the affirmative obligation of refuting every purported nondiscriminatory motive offered by the wrongdoer for his or her discriminatory action,” the bill’s proponents explained.

Workplace Violence Prevention for Health Care and Social Service Workers Act. The likewise bipartisan H.R. 1309, introduced on February 19, 2019, is intended to protect healthcare and social service workers from preventable acts of workplace violence. The bill would force OSHA to issue a standard requiring certain employers in the health care and social service sectors (as well as employers in sectors that conduct similar activities) to implement violence prevention plans, which sponsors say are proven to reduce workplace violence.

Employers would also be required to:

  • Investigate workplace violence incidents, risks, or hazards as soon as practicable;
  • Provide training and education to employees who may be exposed to workplace violence hazards and risks;
  • Meet recordkeeping requirements; and
  • Prohibit acts of discrimination or retaliation against employees for reporting workplace violence incidents, threats, or concerns.

Absent congressional intervention, it is highly unlikely there will be any action taken to protect health care workers in the next decade, according to a bill fact sheet. The Government Accountability Office has estimated conservatively that it takes OSHA at least seven years to issue a standard. Two of the most significant OSHA standards issued in recent history, crystalline silica and beryllium, both of which cause irreversible lung disease, each took OSHA 20 years to finalize, the bill’s proponents noted.

“The three bills under consideration this morning reflect our commitment to ensuring that all Americans have access to safe workplaces where they can work free from discrimination and retire with dignity,” Health and Education Committee Chairman Bobby Scott said in a statement.