All of a sudden, the WARN Act is proving to be a political hot potato for politicians who approved the automatic budget cuts (known as sequestration) that are set to take effect on January 2nd. President Obama’s Labor Department issued guidance this week stating that companies, including defense contractors, anticipating sequestration are not compelled to issue advanced notice of layoffs stipulated under the WARN Act. Those pink slips would be issued just days before November’s presidential elections in most states.
This conveniently-timed guidance by Labor issued just before OMB officials testify before Congress on Wednesday is just that: election year politicking.
The WARN Act and Budget Control Act are the laws of the land that legally cannot be ignored simply because it might hurt a pol’s reelection chances. The law states that sequestration will take effect in January. Only another law will change that.
Defense contractors cannot avoid their legal obligations on the theory that a law triggering layoffs might be changed before the layoffs become necessary… any more than my employer can stop withholding my income taxes because Congress is considering reforming the tax code.
The WARN Act provides employees a right that is enforced by federal courts, not the Labor Department. Even the Labor Department admits in a WARN Act fact sheet that “it has no administrative or enforcement responsibility under WARN” and therefore “cannot provide specific advice or guidance with respect to individual situations.”
Until this week, anyway.
What’s ironic about the politics of sequestration is how the WARN Act came into law. In 1988, a Democratically-controlled Congress passed the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act with veto-proof majorities. It was heralded as a major victory for labor and workers who would now have advanced notice of mass layoffs. The idea was to provide a window for workers and their families to look for new opportunities while taking advantage of state programs while they were still on payroll. By law, firms with at least 100 full-time employees anticipating mass layoffs must provide 60 days’ notice to affected employees (some states require 90 days like California and New York).
In 2007, Democrats led by Sherrod Brown, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton proposed the Forewarn Act, which would have strengthened the WARN Act by expanding the number of companies under the law’s jurisdiction and requiring 90 days’ notice. The bill didn’t go anywhere. Now, apparently, the president not only opposes the principles underlying legislation he himself supported, he opposes WARN entirely.