The 2016 Presidential Race: How Leading Candidates Confront Key HR Issues

By David Mark Jan 5, 2016
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Expanded overtime eligibility. Paid-family-leave mandates. What to do with the tax on high-end health plans.

These HR-related issues haven’t generated the presidential campaign trail buzz of Donald Trump’s proposal to ban people of Muslim faith from entering the United States, or Hillary Clinton’s use of personal e-mail for government purposes. But they’re crucial to HR professionals and, by extension, millions of American employees. And they reflect some of the most consequential domestic policy decisions the new 45th president will confront.

With the first primaries fast approaching, voters will be asked to consider several issues critical to HR as they weigh which candidates best address their greatest concerns. Consider the proposed changes to federal regulations that would increase the pool of workers eligible for overtime pay—announced by President Barack Obama in June 2015—which, in general, Democrats favor and Republicans oppose.

Under current federal rules, employees earning up to $455 a week, or $23,660 annually, qualify for overtime pay. The Obama administration’s proposal would increase the number of workers eligible for overtime by more than doubling the threshold to $970 a week, or $50,440 each year. If the changes are enacted, more than 5 million workers could see a boost in take-home pay.

Under current rules, critics say, companies classify rank-and-file employees as managers so they won’t be eligible for overtime pay. Opponents of the changes, including congressional Republicans, contend that they will lead to cutbacks in hours for employees and layoffs. A Labor Department under a Republican administration is likely to at least review the proposed overtime rules, if not revise or even overturn them.

A similar Democrat/Republican split is emerging over the issue of paid family leave. In his 2015 State of the Union address, President Obama called for legislation mandating paid sick time and paid maternity leave for all workers. The Republican congressional majorities simply ignored this. But the idea isn’t going away; major Silicon Valley companies and others have voluntarily instituted parental leave policies that grant generous leave benefits to both women and men.

Presidential Scorecard

One HR-related issue that members from both sides oppose is an Affordable Care Act (ACA) provision set to take effect in 2020: the “Cadillac tax.” That’s a 40 percent nondeductible excise tax on employer-sponsored health plans that provide benefits of over $10,200 for individuals and $27,500 for families.

The Cadillac tax has drawn predictable opposition from business groups, but labor unions are also concerned, warning that it will shift health costs onto workers. The pending tax has proved so unpopular that a catchall federal spending bill enacted in December 2015 pushed back its original start date by two years. The Obama administration—once vehemently opposed to any such change in ACA funding—went along.

Of course, each presidential candidate has his or her own take on the finer points and details of these HR-related issues. Here’s an overview of where the leading candidates stand, in alphabetical order by party:

Democrats

Hillary Clinton

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Hillary Clinton. The former senator and secretary of state backs the new overtime rules. She tweeted in June 2015: “President Obama is right to update overtime rules for the modern workforce—a win for our economy and workers nationwide.” That’s not a surprising move for a Democratic frontrunner whose (presumed) general election campaign will look to support from organized labor to turn out the vote.

Before Clinton became the nation’s top diplomat during the first Obama term, health care was her most identifiable issue. In 1993-94, the then-first-lady led President Bill Clinton’s health care push—and took no shortage of blame for its failure during her husband’s troubled first two years in the White House.

Clinton generally supports the ACA and its goal of reducing the number of uninsured Americans. But in September 2015, she announced opposition to the Cadillac tax, saying other proposed health care reforms would make up the costs of repealing it.

She’s much more positive toward paid leave. A President Hillary Clinton would likely expand on a legacy of her husband’s administration, the Family and Medical Leave Act, which allows families to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a new child, or to deal with their own or a family member’s health needs.

Clinton’s plans for any paid-family-leave policies have so far been fuzzy on details. But expect to hear about them with more precision as the presidential campaign progresses deep into 2016.

Bernie Sanders

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Bernie Sanders. The senator from Vermont has made fighting income inequality the cornerstone of his presidential bid. The longtime Independent lawmaker joined the Democratic fold to take on Clinton for the party nomination, but his policies remain firmly in the Democratic Socialist camp.

Not surprisingly, Sanders backs the new overtime rules—if anything, viewing them as a floor, not a ceiling. When the overtime regulations were announced, Sanders said they would mean businesses would no longer be able to shirk their responsibility to pay fair wages.

Like Hillary Clinton, Sanders is critical of the ACA’s Cadillac tax. A backer of the idea of a single-payer “universal coverage” health system, Sanders says the lost Cadillac tax revenue would be made up for with a surcharge “on the wealthiest people in this country.”

Sanders has introduced Senate legislation to provide 12 weeks of paid leave if an employee has a child, or is diagnosed with cancer or any other serious medical condition.

Republicans

Jeb Bush

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Jeb Bush. The former Florida governorhas been the most outspoken in the Republican field in his opposition of the overtime rules. At a June 2015 appearance in Council Bluffs, Iowa, Bush argued that the Obama administration’s changes would only hurt employees.

On the Cadillac tax, Bush is opposed. And like all of his GOP rivals, he wants to go even further by repealing the ACA altogether.But Bush’s ACA alternative features a surprisingly similar proposal, National Journal reported in October 2015. Bush’s plan “calls for tax­ing be­ne­fits cost­ing more than $12,000 for in­di­vidu­als or $30,000 for fam­il­ies. The level at which those be­ne­fits are taxed would vary with in­come.”

Bush has been largely silent on the leave issue. His campaign website makes no mention and he rarely, if ever, brings it up. Occasionally he’s been put on the spot. In October 2015, when an activist with the group Make It Work, which supports family leave, asked about his stance on mandating the benefit, he first replied, “That’s a state decision.” Pressed further, Bush added, “I don’t think we need more federal rules.”

Ben Carson

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Ben Carson. The retired neurosurgeon’s campaign has been long on biography but short on policy specifics. A GOP front-runner in fall 2015, Carson has since fallen back in the pack, according to polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, and nationally. He’s been vague about how he would approach issues of interest to the HR community, including paid leave, the impending Cadillac tax and overtime rules.

Carson’s policy approach has a conservative bentoverall. He has spoken out against the welfare system, saying it fosters dependency, and has called the ACA “the worst thing ... since slavery.”

Chris Christie

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Chris Christie. The New Jersey governor hasn’t been a big fan of paid family leave in his state. When, in late 2014, Garden State municipalities started mandating paid sick leave, Christie said, “These towns that are doing it just continue to make New Jersey less and less competitive. And then when businesses leave the state, they want to know why.”

Christie elaborated on his paid-leave views—however unwillingly—in a videotaped confrontation with the Make It Work group. “What I’m telling you is that I’m not, as president, going to mandate that each business give paid sick leave.”

On the federal overtime rules, Christie has been largely silent. His track record as New Jersey governor points to likely skepticism, if not outright opposition. During Christie’s second year in office, his administration sought to make it tougher for white-collar workers to qualify for overtime.

Christie is also an unwavering foe of the Cadillac tax. He has warned repeatedly about sharp increases to New Jersey taxpayers once the new ACA levy kicks. The governor contends that it will add to the Garden State’s long-term fiscal crisis, including mounting debt and rising pension costs.

Ted Cruz

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Ted Cruz. The Texas senator opposes the overtime rules, though he’s said relatively little about the issue. The ACA is a different matter: Cruz rose to prominence in part through his opposition to the ACA, which included a 2013 Senate filibuster.

His opposition to the Cadillac tax specifically, though, is not as ardent as might be expected. In fall 2015, Cruz joined two other Senate Republicans—including GOP presidential rival Marco Rubio of Florida—in opposing legislation to repeal the Cadillac tax. The pair, along with Senator Mike Lee of Utah, said they wanted the entire ACA repealed, and were ready to forgo the Cadillac tax rollback in pursuit of their broader goal.

Cruz, like the other Republican candidates, has been largely silent on the paid-leave issue. About his only public comments have come from a confrontation with the Make It Work group at the Iowa State Fair in August 2015. “I think maternity leave and paternity leave are wonderful things. I support them personally,” he said in remarks captured on video. “But I don’t think the federal government should be in the business of mandating them.”

Marco Rubio

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Marco Rubio. The Florida senator lines up with his Republican rivals in opposing the federal overtime rules and pushing an end to the ACA, Cadillac tax included. The former state House speaker stands out, though, for offering the most detailed paid-family-leave plan of any Republican candidate.

Rubio’s proposal aims to avoid a federal mandate. But it would give a 25 percent tax credit to employers that voluntarily provide at least four weeks of paid family leave. The plan is limited to 12 weeks annually. Rubio’s campaign says the plan would also be adaptable for part-time employees.

New York Times conservative-leaning columnist Ross Douthat explained Rubio’s political impetus for tackling a traditionally Democratic issue: “On domestic policy, his campaign assumes (reasonably) that the party lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential campaigns because Republicans were out of touch with middle-class pocketbook anxieties, and tries to remedy that fault by moving somewhat toward the center on economic policy.”

Donald Trump

Photo Credit: a katz / Shutterstock.com
Donald Trump. Details of the billionaire businessman’s policy positions have largely taken a backseat to his incendiary rhetoric. But his policy ideas actually follow a considerably less-Republican-orthodox line than his rivals, from a fiercely protectionist stance on foreign trade to an openness for higher taxes on the wealthy. His cult-of-personality campaign has offered few details on how he would approach HR matters, including federal overtime rules. And he hasn’t addressed the Cadillac tax much, other than loudly and repeatedly calling for an ACA repeal with “something terrific!”

Unlike his GOP opponents, Trump hasn’t shut the door on the idea of paid family leave. Trump demurred on the issue in an October 2015 Fox News interview: “Well, it’s something that’s being discussed. I think we have to keep our country very competitive, so you have to be careful of it. But certainly there are a lot of people discussing it.”

It’s worth noting that despite Trump’s seemingly boorish reputation, some of his actual practices in the workplace have earned praise. The Washington Post in November 2015 portrayed Trump as ahead of his time in promoting women to top positions and allowing employees time for attending family activities.

David Mark (@DavidMarkDC) is a journalist and book writer in the Washington, D.C., area, and most recently co-authored Doubletalk: The Language, Code, and Jargon of a Presidential Election.

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