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Breakthrough Reached Between Business, Labor on Guest-Worker Program

Labor and business groups have agreed on the details of a new guest-worker program, likely removing a major hurdle to an immigration deal in the Senate, according to two sources familiar with the negotiations.

The framework for a guest-worker program has long vexed an immigration overhaul, as labor interests feared a flood of low-wage workers undercutting American workers, while the Chamber of Commerce has led the push for a steady supply of workers.

The agreement was consummated on a conference call Friday night with Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y. Both AFL-CIO President Richard L. Trumka and Chamber of Commerce President Thomas J. Donohue told each other they agreed on the compromise with Schumer on the line.

Schumer spoke Saturday to White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough to brief him on the agreement.

“This issue has always been the dealbreaker on immigration reform, but not this time,” an optimistic Schumer said through his office.

But the source noted that the Senate’s bipartisan “gang of eight,” which has been negotiating a comprehensive immigration bill to release in early April, is reviewing the guest-worker agreement. The source also said that other issues remain that still must be worked out by the group.

“It’s not a fait accompli,” the source said.

Disputes over a guest-worker program were one reason a comprehensive immigration overhaul collapsed in Congress in 2007. This time, senators had hoped to punt the question of guest workers to the labor and business groups while they focused on other aspects of the bill. But the outside groups’ inability to strike a compromise forced the senators and their staffs to get involved in the talks earlier in March.

A final sticking point resolved by the Chamber and the AFL-CIO involved wages. The agreement will require employers to pay the same to guest workers as they typically pay their regular workers doing the same job, or the prevailing wage, whichever is higher.

Both sides agreed to set the initial number of new guest-worker visas issued in the first year of the program at 20,000. That’s fewer than the 400,000 that the Chamber wanted and more than the 10,000 that the union was hoping for.

The negotiators also agreed on a formula that would allow the number of visas issued to fluctuate beyond that initial number because of economic needs. Sources on both sides said the formula would involve around four factors.

First, it would take the national unemployment rate into account. Second, it would be based on the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey, a Bureau of Labor Statistics measure that assesses labor shortages by industry across the nation. The formula would also rely on employer demand and on the recommendation of a new bureau set up to analyze the labor market by sector and by region.

Overall, the program would be capped at 200,000 visas a year, although a “safety valve” would allow employers to pay a premium and hire a foreign worker once that cap has been reached.

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