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Senate begins confirming Obama’s HR-related Cabinet nominees

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,FMLA Guidelines,HR Management,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Preventing Workplace Violence

Even before President Obama took the oath of office at noon yesterday, U.S. senators were preparing to confirm his nominees to head the U.S. Departments of Homeland Security, Labor and Justice—the federal agencies with the greatest impact on HR and employment law.

The Senate yesterday confirmed former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano as secretary of homeland security. It could vote as early as this afternoon to confirm Rep. Hilda Solis as secretary of labor and Eric Holder as attorney general.

All three have testified before Senate committees within the last two weeks, and Obama formally nominated them yesterday after taking office.

The Department of Labor (DOL) is in charge of enforcing a host of wage-and-hour, workplace safety and other laws affecting employers and workers. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is responsible for securing the nation’s borders and enforces employment eligibility verification rules that employers must comply with. The Department of Justice, through the EEOC, enforces anti-discrimination laws.

Napolitano and Solis testified they would beef up the employment law enforcement missions of their Cabinet departments. Employers that violate immigration and labor laws can expect more federal compliance oversight.

Napolitano’s testimony signaled a sharp break with the Bush administration’s policy on immigration enforcement.

In recent years, DHS employment-eligibility enforcement efforts focused heavily on deporting undocumented workers arrested during workplace raids. Raids may continue in the Obama administration, but they’ll likely focus on making sure employers have bulletproof processes for ensuring they hire only employees who are eligible to work in the United States—and penalizing those who don’t.

“I expect to increase the focus on ensuring that employers of unlawful workers are prosecuted,” Napolitano testified to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Couching the DOL enforcement responsibilities in terms of civil rights, Solis also said she would step up compliance enforcement against employers that violate wage-and-hour laws, as well as other workplace laws such as the FMLA.

“I believe these laws codify values that are fundamental to our society. A fair day’s work deserves a fair day’s pay. Workers need time and flexibility to care for their families and themselves,” Solis told the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. “These are American values. They must be America’s ordinary way of doing business.”

Although Solis carefully avoided detailed statements on the pending Employee Free Choice Act—which would make it easier for workers to unionize—she and Obama are expected to work hard to gain early passage. Organized labor groups praised her nomination.

The take-away for HR and employers: Prepare now for tougher federal enforcement down the road. Working with a Democratic-controlled Congress, the Obama administration can be expected to take a harder line against organizations that break employment-related laws. Federal agencies will likely be more inclined to side with employees than the Bush administration was.

Advice: Ask your attorneys to review your policies and procedures to ensure they comply with federal laws affecting wages and hours, Form I-9 employment eligibility verification, family and medical leave and discrimination against members of protected classes.

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