Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Department of Labor: Few Women in Constructions Jobs Due To "Blatant Discrimination" [SWA]

    A post appeared Monday on the official blog of the Department of Labor entitled "Construction Jobs are Good Jobs – for Women, Too!"  Although the title sounds upbeat, the tone of the post is hostile and accusatory.  Donna Lenhoff, a senior civil rights adviser at the DOL, wrote the entry, and to hear her tell it, one gets the impression the split between men and women in the industry would be much more evenly balanced if not for harassment, hostile work environments, and blatant discrimination.  Any suggestion that women might not choose construction work due to the demands of the job is dismissed as detached from reality:
Those who oppose taking affirmative steps to end gender discrimination in construction may argue that women’s low participation reflects a lack of ability or willingness to perform “dirty and dangerous” jobs. However, such assertions are not founded on reality. In fact, women’s representation in many “dirty and dangerous” jobs comparable to construction has increased over the past 30 years.
    The post links to a document published in May 2012 that bemoans the lack of progress on a 35-year old goal set by the DOL's Office for Federal Contract Compliance Programs to "for women to work 6.9 percent of federal construction contractors’ work hours[.]"  The tone of the document mirrors that of Lenhoff's article.  Among the reasons cited:
  • "gender inequity in construction vocational and training programs"
  • "women are often pushed by mentors, family, and friends into occupations that align with traditional gender stereotypes"
  • "gender stereotypes, sexual harassment, a lack of awareness about opportunities in construction, and insufficient instruction"
  • "barriers that women face in pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship programs drive their miniscule share of the field"
    Nowhere in either the May 2012 document or the blog post is any suggestion that there might be alternate reasons for the low representation of women in construction.  It does not seem to occur to the authors that traditional reasons for the overwhelming dominance of men in the field might still hold sway, such as physical strength or risk-acceptance. (One does not have to observe a playground for long to recognize which sex is more risk-prone.)  If women are underrepresented, the authors infer it must be because "women have traditionally been excluded from entering these good jobs and continue to be denied their fair share of employment in the industry."
    No doubt the reasons listed by the authors at the DOL play some role in the status quo, and the stereotype of a construction site is likely well based in reality.  Yet a myopic view of the issue and an apparent desire to equalize the sexes in all areas does a disservice to both men and women.  Men are stereotyped as Neanderthals crudely defending their turf at all costs, and women are infantilized as being helpless to break into a field where everyone knows they would if they only could be protected.  Yes, "blatant discrimination" should be stamped out.  But sometimes disparate impact is simply disparate choice by women (and men) who know what career is the best fit for them.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Defense Dept. Urges Furloughed Workers to Use ‘Free or Low-Cost’ Recreation During Time Off [TWS]

    While furloughs of civilian employees of the defense department have not lived up to the pre-sequester billing, the Pentagon is doing what it can to ease the pain for those who will be taking involuntary time off.  The American Forces Press Service is reporting that the director of the Pentagon's Morale, Welfare and Recreation (WMR) program is urging furloughed civilians to tap into "fitness, recreational and educational services, often at no charge or for significantly less than one might pay just outside an installation’s gates."  The list of "free or low-cost" offerings is extensive:
A common access card gives DOD civilian employees access to free or low-cost use of base fitness centers, swimming pools, libraries, movie theaters, bowling alleys, clubs, arts-and-craft centers, auto repair shops, golf courses, campgrounds, shooting ranges, beaches and marinas. 
Depending on the location, DOD civilians also can rent camping, boating, snorkeling, skiing and other outdoor gear at their base outdoor recreation office. They can visit the installation tickets and tours office to buy discount tickets to civilian movie theaters, theme parks and travel and tour packages. 
Some civilian employees may not realize they’re also qualified to rent the recreational campgrounds, cabins, cottages, trailers and trailer or recreational vehicle parks with hook-ups found on many military installations.
    There is even access to resorts that the article refers to as the "crown jewels" of the program:
That extends to the crown jewels of the MWR program: Armed Forces Recreation Center resorts at popular vacation spots. All run by the Army but open to military and civilian employees from every service, these include Shades of Green on the grounds of Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla.; the Hale Koa in Honolulu; the Edelweiss Lodge and Resort in Garmisch, Germany; and the Dragon Hill Lodge in Seoul, South Korea. 
The Navy runs a similar resort-type facility, the New Sanno Hotel, in Tokyo. In addition, the Air Force has a partnership with Keystone Resort, Colo., to offer discounts at Rocky Mountain Blue, with a variety of lodging options and recreational discounts.
    The WMR director said it's too early to say whether or not DOD civilians are utilizing the program more since sequestration, but he expects an increase due to the low cost and convenience.  He speculated that the WMR program may soon be subject to cost-cutting, but that in the meantime, civilian employees should "make the most of the furlough situation."
“MWR is here for them,” he said. “There’s no better time than now to check out what’s available.”

Note: A version of this article appeared first at The Weekly Standard

Monday, July 29, 2013

HHS: Small Business May Keep Current Health Plans in 2014, But Will Lose Tax Credit [TWS]

    When the Affordable Care Act passed in 2010, one provision that kicked in immediately was a Small Business Health Care Tax Credit.  The IRS explains how the fairly generous credit works:
For tax years 2010 through 2013, the maximum credit is 35 percent for small business employers and 25 percent for small tax-exempt employers such as charities...
Here’s what this means for you. If you pay $50,000 a year toward workers’ health care premiums – and if you qualify for a 15 percent credit, you save … $7,500. If you save $7,500 a year from tax year 2010 through 2013, that’s total savings of $30,000...
    The IRS notes that a change is coming in 2014:
An enhanced version of the credit will be effective beginning Jan. 1, 2014. Additional information about the enhanced version will be added to IRS.gov as it becomes available. In general, on Jan. 1, 2014, the rate will increase to 50 percent and 35 percent, respectively...
     While the "additional information about the enhanced version" of the tax credit is not yet available on the IRS website, the Health and Human Services (HHS) Healthcare.gov website does provide some new information, and it may prove an unpleasant surprise to those businesses and employees who were counting on President Obama's promise that if you like your plan, you can keep it (a promise he often paired with the guarantee about keeping your doctor.)  The tax credit will continue to be available and is even increasing, as the IRS website notes, but only for those businesses who purchase coverage through the government's Small Business Health Options Program (SHOP).  In bold print, the website says that: "The credit is available only if you get coverage through the SHOP Marketplace."  The following also appears under a section for further questions:

    And businesses who like their current plans?  They will be welcome to keep them... but not to keep the tax credit for which they have been eligible for the past four years.

    There is no indication on the HHS website that insurance companies will be required to offer plans to businesses on SHOP that are identical to plans businesses currently offer employees.  As the answer to the question above indicates, business must "take this into account" as they make "coverage plans for 2014."
    The president was asked about this "you can keep your plan" pledge back in 2009 in an ABC News interview with Diane Sawyer.  While the president said he lacked absolute power to force businesses to never change plans, he said no one would be "forced" to change plans [emphasis added]:
Continued the president, "So, those choices are being made by employers constantly, right?  I can't pass a law that says, 'I'm sorry, employers, you can never make changes to the health care plans that you provide your employees.' What I can say is that the government is not going to force you to, your employer or you to join a government plan, for example.  If you're happy with it, and your employer's happy with it, keep it."
    While the new rule regarding SHOP does not technically "force" companies to change plans, the loss of a tax credit potentially worth tens of thousands of dollars might be too big a pill for many small businesses and charities to swallow.  Consequently, the president's "guarantee" might ring a little more hollow than it already does.

Note: A version of this article appeared first at The Weekly Standard.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

WH Spokesman: 'The President Has Spent an Inordinate Amount of Time ... Negotiating'

    Throughout his time as President, Barack Obama has often been the subject of criticism from both sides of the political spectrum for not engaging enough with Congress, Republicans in particular, to solve problems and work through legislative issues.  However, during a press gaggle today aboard Air Force One, Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest said that the "President has spent an inordinate amount of time" negotiating with Congress.  Earnest's remarks came in response to a reporter's question [emphasis added]:
Q    The Republicans control the House of Representatives.  Why is the President giving speeches criticizing the Republicans, instead of sitting down with them and trying to  compromise on achieving a budget deal that will get him at least some of what he wants? 
MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think there are a number of reasons for that.  The President has spent an inordinate amount of time, some might even say, negotiating with Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill to try to find some consensus, to try to find some common ground about what should be some pretty basic economic principles about supporting the middle class.  That is the President’s top priority.  That is the reason that he ran for President in the first place.  It has been at the top of his agenda throughout his first term.
    Critics of the president might also take issue with Earnest's characterization of the timing of events during the president's first term, referring later in the gaggle to "our nascent economic recovery", while talking about the Affordable Care Act as a "political [battle] waged and won many years ago."

Note: A version of this article first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Pentagon Signs $31K Contract for Oil Portrait of Leon Panetta

    Washington DC is big on tradition, and one of those traditions involves official portraits of top government officials.  The Defense Department just awarded a $31,200 contract (frame included) to Portraits, Inc. for an official portrait of former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta:
The Washington Headquarters Services Acquisition Directorate issued a Firm-Fixed Price (FFP) purchase order for the painting and delivery of the official oil portrait for the former Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, as required by the Department of Defense. This portrait shall be executed by an artist experienced in commissions of Presidential Cabinet Level or other Senior/High Ranking Officials. The official portrait shall be suitable for permanent exhibition as part of the Pentagon Collection in the Pentagon, Washington DC.

    Just last October, Panetta unveiled the portrait of his predecessor Robert Gates in a ceremony almost derailed by Hurricane Sandy.  Although Panetta has held a number of positions in government, including representative in Congress, OMB Director, White House chief-of-staff under Bill Clinton, and CIA director for Barack Obama, the secretary of defense position appears to be the first to merit an official oil portrait.  The CIA may eventually commission a portrait of Panetta, but that agency appears to be lagging behind.  The last director with an oil portrait is George Tenet, who left the position in 2004.

Note: A version of this article first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Kerry: 'Core Issue of Instability ... Is the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict'

    Secretary of State John Kerry is currently in Jordan for talks with various talks with area leaders and a meeting of the Arab Peace Initiative Follow-Up Committee.  After a meeting with Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, Kerry made some rather sweeping remarks about the role the Palestinian-Israeli conflict plays in regional and global stability [emphasis added]:
Peace is in the common interest of everybody in this region. And as many ministers said to me today in the meeting that we had – many of them – they said that the core issue of instability in this region and in many other parts of the world is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The only way to resolve that is through direct negotiations, and the only ones who can make that happen are not President Obama, John Kerry, Nasser Judeh, but it is the parties themselves. They have to make that decision.
     Kerry also had high praise for the Arab Peace Initiative and the part it could play in bringing peace between Israel and fifty-seven Arab and Muslim nations:
[T]he Arab Peace Initiative, which King Abdullah put forward a number of years ago, I have said before, was a very important departure point and one which never received the full attention and focus that it should have. 
I’m glad that it is today because it promises to open up significant potential for normalized relations, for the potential for trade and growth in historic and very important ways. And it promises Israel – Israel needs to look hard at this initiative, which promises Israel peace with 22 Arab nations and 35 Muslim nations, a total of 57 nations that are standing and waiting for the possibility of making peace with Israel.

Note: This article first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

HHS Admits: You Might Not Be Able to Keep Your Doctor Under Obamacare

    As the Affordable Care Act was pushed through Congress in 2010, the Obama administration and its allies were unequivocal in two claims about Obamacare: If you like your doctor and you like your current plan, you can keep them.  HHS Secretary Kathleen Sibelius and then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi backed the president fully in this regard.  The White House went so far as to post a Health Insurance Reform Reality Check on its website where "Linda Douglass of the White House Office of Health Reform debunks the myth that reform will force you out of your current insurance plan or force you to change doctors."  President Obama upped the ante, putting the promise in the form of a "guarantee":

THE PRESIDENT: Here is a guarantee that I've made. If you have insurance that you like, then you will be able to keep that insurance. If you've got a doctor that you like, you will be able to keep your doctor. Nobody is trying to change what works in the system. We are trying to change what doesn't work in the system.
    While there has been sniping back and forth between the administration and its detractors about the real-world application of the Affordable Care Act since its passage, the new Healthcare.gov website has taken some of the mystery out of the controversy.  And President Obama and his administration do not fare well in this latest "reality check".  Among the questions that HHS recently added to the website: "Can I keep my own doctor?":

    "Depending on the plan you choose in the Marketplace, you may be able to keep your current doctor."  The bottom line is that Obamacare guarantees neither. Doctors may be only available through certain networks, just as in the current system.  And only plans that existed in their current form on March 23, 2010, are even eligible to be "kept." The vast majority of plans will be new, subject to a raft of new regulations, requirements, and restrictions.
    Now that Health and Human Services has confirmed that the suspicions of Obamacare opponents were justified, the Obama administration will have some explaining to do to friends and foes of the law alike. Because now everyone is finding out "what's in it."

Note: A version of this article first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Vice President Biden's $245,000 Hotel Bill in Trinidad and Tobago

    Vice President Biden spent only about 20 hours in Trinidad and Tobago on his recent six day trip through South America and the Caribbean, but the hotel bill for the vice president, his entourage and the advance team came in at about $245,000 for an estimated 1,134 room nights.  As is typically the case with VIP travel, the contract was awarded without the usual "full and open competition" due to security and logistical concerns:

    An interesting note in the justification and approval documentation indicated the reasons why the Hyatt was chosen over the somewhat less expensive Hilton:
Hilton Hotel Trinidad – did not have enough rooms available to accommodate the advance and the traveling party.  Additionally, this visit would have conflicted with the state visit of the President of the People’s Republic of China, staying at this hotel.
    Contracts for lodging for the longer Colombian and Brazilian legs of the vice president's trip have not yet surfaced.

Note: A version of this article first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

Dept. of Transportation Audit of Stimulus Money Terminated Despite Estimated Improper Payments of $100M

    Despite an admission by the Department of Transportation (DOT) that the Federal-aid Highway Programs under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) are "susceptible to significant improper payments," the DOT Inspector General has terminated an audit initiated in April "due to other higher priority work demands."  The original announcement of the audit of the ARRA programs (better known as the "stimulus") reported that DOT estimated improper payments of more than $100 million in 2012 alone [emphasis added]:

FHWA has funded approximately 13,000 State and local highway  infrastructure projects and has disbursed almost  $26 billion in ARRA funds.
The Improper Payments Information Act of 2002 makes Federal agencies accountable for preventing and detecting improper payments within their programs. The Improper Payment Elimination and Recovery Act of 2010 requires identification and estimation of improper payments. The Department of Transportation (DOT) has identified FHWA’s Federal-aid Highway Programs as susceptible to significant improper payments. In fiscal year 2012, DOT reported an estimate of $103.2 million  in improper payments in FHWA’s Federal-aid Highway Program.
    A report on another IG audit relating to the Federal Highway Administration and the ARRA was just issued on May 7, 2013 and found areas for improvement in DOT's oversight of the administration of program funds:
On May 7, 2013, we reported that FHWA inspections did not routinely verify whether States detected instances of noncompliance with some Federal requirements. For example, we projected that $125.6 million, or 12 percent, of ARRA progress payments made to contractors in three States were unsupported.
    The IG said that "all four recommendations" stemming from that audit were "resolved but open pending completion of planned actions" by DOT.

     The more recent audit, which began in April and was terminated this week, was intended to test DOT's internal controls to see if they were adequate to "prevent and detect improper payments" to ARRA grant recipients. The IG's termination letter stated that the audit may still take place at a later date.

Note: A version of this article first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

Labor Dept.: $64M in Grants For 'Personalized, Re-employment Plans' For Unemployed

    The Labor Department announced Monday the awarding of $64 million in grants to help unemployment insurance recipients find work more quickly.  The funds will be divided up between thirty-eight states, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and the District of Columbia.  Acting Labor Secretary Seth Harris announced the awards:
"The grants announced today will help individuals and families facing unemployment get back to work quickly," said acting Secretary of Labor Seth D. Harris. "This is a win-win-win for those looking for work, employers who want to pay less taxes and states struggling to control their budgets."
    The grants fund programs that focus directly on matching individuals and their career interests with job availability in the local job market:
The funds will be used to provide UI beneficiaries with personalized, re-employment plans based on the claimant's career interests and local labor market information. These assessments are done in-person and participants will receive referrals to re-employment services and/or training provided by the American Job Center. The program will also allow for a complete review of the claimants eligibility for UI benefits, to help reduce incidences of improper payments...
A recent report by Impaq International found strong evidence showing that re-employment and eligibility assessments expedite the return of the unemployed to the workforce.
   The five states receiving the most funds are: New York, $11,037,401; Florida, $7,146,196; Massachusetts, $4,280,176; Oregon, $3,693,193; and Ohio, $3,449,135.

Note: A version of this article first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Audit of State Dept.'s 'High Threat Level Posts' Finds 'Common' Security Deficiencies

    Nine months after the terror attacks at a U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, an audit of five "selected high threat level posts" of the State Department by the Office of the Inspector General [OIG] reveals cause for concern.  The report found that the facilities in question failed to comply with current security standards and that "common physical and procedural security deficiencies" were found [emphasis added]:
 The report presents the Office of Inspector General’s (OIG) audit of Department compliance with physical and procedural security standards at selected high threat level posts... 
OIG conducted physical security compliance reviews at the five posts and found that posts were not always in compliance with current physical security standards and that common physical and procedural security deficiencies occurred among the posts reviewed.
    In one case, an increase in personnel actually had a detrimental effect on the implementation of the security plan for the post:
OIG also found that the Chiefs of Mission in two of the selected posts used their National Security Decision Directive 38 authority to increase post personnel levels in alignment with their mission strategic plans. However, personnel levels increased beyond or near the compounds’ intended capacities, and at one post, this increase in personnel negatively affected the implementation of the post security program.
    The full report is not yet posted, and the summary does not reveal the location of the five posts under review.  Of the 24 recommendations made in the report to correct deficiencies, ten are closed or resolved, but fourteen remain "unresolved and require further management action before they can be resolved and closed."

Note: A version of this article first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Labor Dept. App Contest: Identify Businesses Who Treat 'Their Workers Fairly and Lawfully'

    As the Department of Labor (DOL) celebrates the 75th anniversary of the Fair Labor Standards Act this year, the DOL is celebrating by sponsoring a Smartphone app contest to help consumers identify businesses who treat "their workers fairly and lawfully."  The DOL requests [emphasis added] that contestants
develop a smartphone application that will transform the way the public is able to use departmental enforcement data.  By providing consumers with information at their fingertips about which businesses have treated their workers fairly and lawfully, the creator of this application will help empower consumers to make informed choices about where to bring their business.
    According to the Labor Department, the finished product should integrate
the department's publicly available enforcement data with consumer ratings websites, geo-positioning Web tools, and other relevant data sets, such as those available from state health boards.
    Presumably the data incorporated into the app would consist only of past infractions for which the targeted businesses have already been cited and penalized.  The DOL seems to suggest the app could be used as something of a blacklist for job-seekers and other businesses:
The app could also prove a useful tool for job seekers and for companies that are deciding which firms they may want to do business with.  It could also help individuals get in touch with the Labor Department if they have any questions.
    The winner of the contest will be announced in November, and "the developer will meet with high-ranking government officials and private-sector entrepreneurs" during a complimentary trip to Washington D.C. for the awards ceremony.

Note: A version of this article first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Unemployed, Discouraged, Underemployed Rate Jumps to 14.3%, Highest Since February

    While the Bureau of Labor Statistics jobs report released this morning showed unemployment unchanged at 7.6 precent, the broadest measure of unemployment, the U-6 rate (seasonally adjusted), jumped from 13.8% to 14.3%, its highest level since February 2013.

    The U-6 rate includes "all persons marginally attached to the labor force, plus total employed part time for economic reasons," including discouraged and underemployed workers, as well as the unemployed.  The rate is only a half-point lower than the 14.8% rate a year ago in June 2012.

Note: A version of this article appeared first at The Weekly Standard.

Treasury Secretary Uses Naturalization Ceremony to Plug Immigration Bill

   At a pre-Independence Day naturalization ceremony at the Treasury Department Wednesday, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew used about one-third of his address to a roomful of newly sworn-in citizens to criticize the United States' immigration system and plug the current immigration legislation.  According to prepared remarks, he told these newest Americans that "too many immigrants do not get a fair shot at the American dream. Too often, they are forced to live and work in the shadows." After singling out the stories of some of the new citizens and what America held for them, Lew continued [emphasis added]:
...You see, immigration is not just something that is consistent with our values. It is also consistent with growing our economy, increasing jobs, and expanding our middle class. Yet the troubling truth remains that too many immigrants do not get a fair shot at the American dream. Too often, they are forced to live and work in the shadows. This not only hurts them, it hurts America as well.  
For instance, our immigration system right now opens our top universities to the brightest minds from all around the globe. But this same system tells these men and women to get out of our country once they are done studying and have received all their training. That is basically pushing new innovation, new jobs, and new businesses beyond our borders.
That encourages industries of the future to grow outside the United States. The truth is, this is not good economic policy. But that is the way our immigration system works today. And it is like a headwind in our economic sails.  
Now, there is a bipartisan immigration bill before Congress that would fix our broken immigration system. This comprehensive legislation does a number of things. It strengthens our borders. It provides a pathway to earned citizenship for the 11 million people who are here illegally. And it will boost economic growth.  
This bill will drive growth by bringing highly skilled scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs to the United States. At the same time, this bill will create a new wave of consumers who will fuel demand and generate economic activity. The effect will be enormous. More new businesses. More new jobs, and more exports.  
We will also see our deficits shrink, and with added workers on our payrolls, Social Security and Medicare will be put on a more stable footing. In fact, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, this legislation will lower our deficits by nearly a trillion dollars over the next two decades. So it is important for our economy, and for who we are as a people that we reform our immigration system...
    Lew closed the ceremony by leading the group in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Note: A version of this article first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

Aetna Letter Warns "Many People Will Pay More For Health Insurance" Under Obamacare

    Aetna, the third largest provider of medical insurance in the country, has mailed a letter to at least some customers this week warning that the "Affordable Care Act (ACA) is changing health insurance" and that "many people will pay more for their health insurance coverage in 2014 than they do today."  The letter is addressed to those whose plans are "non-grandfathered" under the ACA, as explained in a footnote, but says that customers "may have options that could cost less than the higher-priced 2014 plans":

    The White House website continues to claim that "...a family of four [under the ACA] would save as much as $2,300 on their premiums in 2014 compared to what they would have paid without reform," and that it is a "myth that reform will force you out of your current insurance plan..."  As Aetna notes in the letter, information on plan options will not be available until ACA open enrollment nears, October 1, 2013, giving people three months notice about how much more coverage will cost in the new year.

Note: A version of this article first appeared at The Weekly Standard.