Washington Update – September

With summer ending and Congress back in session, lawmakers only have a handful of legislative days to avert a potential government shutdown. It’s unlikely that a shutdown will be allowed to happen, but it is possible. More likely, Congress and the president will agree on a series of short-term funding measures that maintain current spending levels and a continuing resolution (or “CR”) that could last through the end of President Obama‘s term in office. Republicans in Congress are divided, however, over how to defund Planned Parenthood after videos were made public apparently showing potentially criminal behavior. Some Republicans lawmakers want to force a showdown with the Democrats and the White House over this issue.

A grand budget compromise is highly unlikely, although pressure is mounting on all sides to break the Budget Control Act spending caps put in place a few years ago. According to Washington insiders, we can expect the status quo to prevail this year and next for the following four reasons:

  • Congressional Republicans want to keep a lid on federal spending. Although congressional defense hawks, like Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Arizona), are screaming about the damage the caps are doing to national defense, most Republicans are content to keep downward pressure on the discretionary budget. The caps, and the deficit reduction they generate, is probably Republican lawmakers’ most notable achievement. To change course now would be very risky for the entire Republican conference, whose base expects them to limit federal spending.
  • Neither the president nor congressional leaders have the power to push through an agreement. Gone, seemingly, is the ability to keep their rank-and-file in line. This is occurring in both parties, but perhaps most openly in the House of Representatives, where certain Republican members are considering actions to force House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) from his role atop leadership. No matter who the leader is these days, the followers are not following. This is not the kind of atmosphere in which budget agreements are made.
  • Greater federal spending might come at too great a political cost for the Obama Administration. Yes, Democrats want to increase federal spending, but legislation providing those funds would likely come with policy riders on issues such as Planned Parenthood, immigration, and the Environmental Protection Agency. President Obama may decide that he is unwilling to cut deals on these issues to get more dollars.
  • Lastly, whether we like it or not, we are heading into what is known in Washington, D.C. as the silly season: a presidential election year. Presidential election politics are already affecting congressional debate and actions (or lack thereof). With media attention already fixed on the many candidates for the highest office, little focus is trained on the need to fund the government. Unfortunately, budget agreements usually do not happen in a vacuum, nor are they generally crafted without a spotlight on the budgeteers. In this election season, that sort of undivided attention does not appear to be very likely. Nor does any new budget agreement.

Still we hope. As this is being written, Congress has just eight business days to get something done. And that does not take into account the day-long recess in observance of Yom Kippur. Unless congressional leaders move decisively and soon, we could be looking at a repeat of the October 2013 shutdown. Let’s hope not.

On a Related Note: A Glimpse under The Capitol Dome

On the topic of impending budget battle, the entire 46-person-strong Senate Democratic caucus sent a letter earlier this summer to the Republican leadership asking Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R- Kentucky) to schedule “immediate” budget negotiations “to avoid a manufactured crisis in the fall.” From the letter: “There are less than two months left in the fiscal year, and we are deeply concerned by the fact that negotiations to craft a bipartisan budget agreement have not yet begun. With the end of the fiscal year looming, we urge you to immediately schedule bipartisan budget negotiations so that we can work together over the coming weeks to avoid another manufactured crisis…. We are ready and willing to work with you to produce a fair and balanced Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015. Therefore, we respectfully request you schedule the first round of these important negotiations as soon as possible.”

In response, the majority leader’s spokesman blasted Democrats for holding spending bills up from floor consideration: “We wrote back to the staffers who sent the letter and got ‘out of office’ replies from both. But it’s important to note that Congress is already engaged in negotiations: Under new leadership, the Appropriations Committee for the first time in nine years passed all appropriations bills-most with Democrat support. But Democrats are refusing to allow a floor debate on the spending bills-going so far as to filibuster a pay raise for the troops.”

Children Essay & Art Contest Deadline Extended (8/21)

Announcement of 2015 ContestAFOP’s 2015 Migrant and Seasonal Farmworker Children Essay & Art Contest deadline has been extended to August 21, 2015. This contest allows us to showcase the talent and powerful stories present among farmworker children. Click here to apply!

Students ages 10-18, from farmworker families, are eligible to participate and can win cash awards and a trip to Las Vegas to show their work at the AFOP National Conference.

Meet the United States Department of Labor

Administrator, Wage and Hour Division
Dr. David Weil

David Weil (2)Prior to this appointment, Dr. Weil served as professor of economics and the Peter and Deborah Wexler Professor of Management at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business. He also served as co-director of the Transparency Policy Project at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He has written five books, three regarding labor market policy including the recently published The Fissured Workplace. He has authored numerous articles and publications in a variety of economics, public policy, management, and industrial relations journals and books, as well as numerous publications in non-academic outlets.David Weil was sworn in as the Administrator of the Wage and Hour Division on May 5, 2014. Dr. Weil is an internationally recognized expert in public and labor market policy; regulatory performance; industrial and labor relations; transparency policy; and supply-chain restructuring and its effects.

“Working together, through a combination of education and enforcement, we can affect change to benefit everyone in this industry — from the workers in the fields to the growers and contractors who employ them.”

No stranger to the Department’s mission or its work, Dr. Weil has served as an adviser to the Wage and Hour Division, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Department of Labor, as well as to a number of other government agencies. He also has served as mediator and adviser in a range of labor union and labor/management settings across the globe. In addition to his work for the Department, his research has been supported by the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Russell Sage Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, among others.

Agricultural Outreach

In fiscal year 2014, the Wage and Hour Division investigations in the agriculture industry yielded violations 80 percent of the time and collected more than $4.5 million in back wages for workers. Enforcement alone, though, is not enough to improve labor law compliance and conditions for workers — direct outreach to industry employers is needed. Wage and Hour Division Administrator David Weil did just that when he met with the National Council of Agricultural Employers at its annual meeting in Washington, D.C., earlier this year. Weil told the gathering of growers, contractors, attorneys and others that, by collaborating to address common labor violations, a fair and level playing field is possible. “Working together, through a combination of education and enforcement, we can affect change to benefit everyone in this industry — from the workers in the fields to the growers and contractors who employ them,” he said.

Source: United States Department of Labor

For the First Time in Years, Congressional Committees Approve NFJP Funding Bill


The House Appropriations Committee recently approved its version of the Fiscal Year 2016 Labor-Health and Human Services-Education Appropriations bill that includes level funding for the National Farmworker Jobs Program (NFJP) at $82 million.  That is the same amount as in fiscal year 2015 and fiscal year 2014 before that.  In these difficult budgetary times, AFOP is pleased we have been able to hold our own.  We have been able to because we have worked hard to make certain that lawmakers understand clearly the great need for this life-changing program and the tremendous success our members have in providing its services.  As Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma) said during his panel’s consideration of the bill, “If you break even in this bill, you’re a winner.”  Meanwhile, in the Senate, the committee-approved bill proposes an $8.9 million cut in the program, nearly an 11-percent reduction, about twice the amount cut by sequestration in fiscal year 2013.

In recent years, congressional appropriators have had trouble moving this measure through the regular legislative process because of controversial policy riders and disagreements over funding levels.  Despite this year’s impressive progress, though, lawmakers once again face an uncertain future in advancing this measure, as well as the other yearly appropriations bills.  The problem is the 2011 Budget Control Act, the law that brought spending caps and sequestration.  In approving its budget plan this year, Congress held non-defense discretionary spending to the Act’s caps, but provided cap relief for defense funding.  Congressional Democrats and the White House took exception to that, and Senate Democrats are now blocking consideration of the appropriations bills until their Republican colleagues agree to a budget compromise increasing funds for their discretionary priorities.  Should the Democrats persist in their blocking effort, and should the Republicans refuse to negotiate a deal, the specter of a government shutdown this fall rises.  While there appears little appetite for such a scenario, it is notable that both sides of the aisle have made comments recently seeking to assign the blame to the other party should a shutdown occur.

AFOP to Congress: Prohibit Child Labor on U.S. Tobacco Farms

April 16, U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) and U.S. Representative David Cicilline (D-RI) introduced legislation to protect child workers from the dangers of exposure to tobacco plants, which can include acute nicotine poisoning and other long term health effects. The Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs (AFOP) supports the proposed legislation, and calls on Congress to swiftly pass the bills.

AFOP’s media release can be read below.

Cicilline and Durbin

The one thing that shouldn’t go missing in the story of food

The one thing that shouldn’t go missing in the story of food
By: Kathleen Nelson, Director of Workforce Development

I’m currently blessed with a very inquisitive four-and-a-half-year-old spitfire full of questions about the world.  This year in his preschool class, the children spent the autumn learning about food and nutrition. They learned about healthy eating, and what kinds of foods are ‘anytime foods’ like fruits and vegetables and what kinds of foods should be eaten ‘only once in a while’ like cookies and cakes.  (That lesson may have only slightly taken—“Once in a while means once every day after dinner, right?” he sweetly asks.)  They visited supermarkets, gardens, and a farm, and they talked about how fruits and veggies are grown, where their cheeseburgers come from, and what goes into their bread – and what happens when that food goes into their bodies.  They’re developing critical thinking skills, (“Mommy, do you need glasses because you never ate enough carrots?”) and asking great questions.

Crucially, my son learned that farmers grow and pick our food.  Then, trains and trucks bring the food to markets and grocers where we can buy it.  While this simplified narrative about our food was mostly perfect for his preschool class, we must make sure that our farmworkers aren’t missing from the story we tell ourselves and our children.  The vital role farmworkers play in our nation’s harvests, nourishing our bodies and the economy, should be honored and celebrated.  It’s also critical that we don’t allow these workers to be left in the dark.  Without visibility, this community of people is vulnerable to exploitation that would never be allowed to stand in any other industry — there are children working in the field, there’s exposure to dangerous pesticides and chemicals, and the workers all too often earn unfair wages.

National Farmworker Awareness week is a great time to start a conversation with your family over the dinner table or on the way to school.  I’m happy to report that my own little guy doesn’t leave this vital community out of the story anymore — what about your family?

Tobacco Work is Poisoning our Children

Tobacco Work is Poisoning our Children
How much longer will the Obama Administration allow it?

“I didn’t feel well, but I still kept working. I started throwing up. I was throwing up for like 10 minutes, just what I ate. I took a break for a few hours and then I went back to work.”
16-year-old child tobacco worker
Interviewed for Human Rights Watch report, “Tobacco’s Hidden Children”

The U.S. is the 4th leading tobacco producer in the world, behind China, Brazil, and India. The U.S. is also behind Brazil and India in protecting young children from dangerous work. Tobacco work is prohibited for children under the age of 18 in both of these countries, while the U.S. allows children as the young as 12 to work with few restrictions to the number of hours and the types of tasks they are allowed to perform, including tobacco work.

Human Rights Watch published a report  in May 2014 in which 141 child tobacco workers from North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia were interviewed about their working conditions. The results? The children were exposed to high levels of pesticides and nicotine, worked for long hours and low wages. They described nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, dizziness, lightheadedness, headaches, and sleeplessness while working on tobacco farms – all symptoms consistent with acute nicotine poisoning.

In December 2014, the New York Times Editorial Board reported on how the world’s top tobacco companies updated their child labor policies, including raising the minimum age limit to 16 years of age. While tobacco growers and the leading tobacco companies have all adopted voluntary self-regulations, these changes are not backed by U.S. law and continues to leave young children across the country unprotected.

On Thursday, Children in the Fields Campaign Director Norma Flores López will be participating in a high-level meeting at the U.S. Department of Labor with the Child Labor Coalition and representatives of the tobacco industry to talk about the steps that have been taken by the tobacco companies to address child labor in U.S. tobacco, and jointly encourage the Obama Administration do more to protect child tobacco workers. Also in attendance will be Cecilia Muñoz, Director of the Domestic Policy Council for the White House, and Secretary of Labor Tom Perez.

Children do not belong in tobacco farms, where they are placing their health and future in danger. They are especially vulnerable because their bodies and brains are still developing. Their testimonies reveal a harsh reality, in which they push themselves to their limits and are willing to sacrifice anything for their families. Without the protections and support from the government, they are destined to a lifetime of living in poverty with mounting health issues developed from years of farm work. In this year’s National Farmworker Awareness Week, we are asking for people across the country to add their voice in support of our farmworker children.

To show support for regulatory action on child labor in tobacco, Avaaz launched an online petition to urge the Obama Administration and Secretary of Labor Perez to adopt regulations banning child labor in U.S. tobacco farming. More than 30,000 signatures have been collected to date. The signatures will be delivered prior to the meeting with the U.S. Department of Labor and the White House. The link to the campaign page is here.

There is also growing momentum in Congress calling for stronger protections for child tobacco workers. In the coming days, Senator Dick Durbin (IL) and Congressman David Cicilline (RI) will be introducing companion bills to prohibit children from work involving direct contact with tobacco, citing concerns about health risks. Congressman Cicilline, who introduced the bill last session, had also sent a letter  with Congressman Matt Cartwright (PA) to urge the Department of Labor to implement stronger protections for child tobacco workers.

“Children working in tobacco are among the nation’s most vulnerable and we must do more to protect them,” they wrote.

In addition, the Children in the Fields Campaign has launched AFOP’s 2015 Migrant and Seasonal Farmworker Children Essay & Art Contests. This contest allows us to collect stories from our farmworker children, including those working in tobacco farms, and showcase not only their powerful testimonies, but also the incredible talent in our farmworker community. The American Federation of Teachers will once again sponsor the contest. This year’s theme is “Planting Hope for Our Future Blooms.” More information can be found by visiting our AFOP website.

When we listen to the stories of our farmworker youth, it is clear: Tobacco work is poisoning our children. Together, we need to demand that the Obama Administration act now to protect our children from the dangers of tobacco work. We mustn’t allow for any more child to get poisoned – not one more.