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HR Considerations for the Biden-Harris Presidential Transition

A deeper look at what is on the labor and employment policy front after Inauguration Day

Aimie Ye

by Aimie Ye - January 13th, 2021


Updated 01/21/2021 

On Wednesday, January 20, 2021 at 12 PM (EST), the most turbulent election season the US has seen came to an end. Amid the polarizing political climate and the recent attacks on the US capitol building, Biden’s presidential transition is sure to be unlike any previous transition. With human resources managers and business owners feeling uncertain about the future of the workplace and policies from a new presidency, let’s take a look at what is on the labor and employment policy front after Inauguration Day. 

Executive Orders Signed on Inauguration Day

  • "100 Days Masking Challenge", asking all Americans to wear masks, as well as requiring social distancing and mask wearing on federal property

  • Rejoining the World Health Organization (WHO)

  • Restructuring the federal government coordination to the COVID-19 pandemic

  • Extending eviction and foreclosure moratoriums

  • Continuing to "pause" student loan payments until September 30, 2021

  • Rejoining the Paris Climate agreement

  • Ending Keystone XL pipeline and revoking oil and gas developments at national wildlife monuments

  • Counting non-US citizens in the US Census again

  • Actions to advance racial equity through the federal government

  • Strengthening workplace discrimination protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity

  • Defending the "Dreamers" program for undocumented young Americans

  • Ending the "Muslim travel ban"

  • Changing Former President Trump's arrest priorities for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)

  • Stopping border wall construction

  • Keeping protections for groups of Liberians in the country

  • Freezing last-minute Trump administration regulatory actions

  • Formulating the Executive Branch ethics doctrine

HR Topics for the Biden-Harris Transition

COVID-19 Pandemic Response & Workplace Safety

With Biden’s transition in full swing, he has been handed a country heavily impacted by the effects of the deadly coronavirus. The president is expected to address the pandemic with a plan that includes promises to increase test-and-trace processes, address racial and ethnic disparities in COVID-19 outcomes, and revamp pandemic-readiness efforts. As COVID-19 cases continue to surge, more lockdown restrictions may be coming, along with the pressure for an economic stimulus package. Funds are needed for additional vaccines, testing, school and childcare assistance, as well as potential for expanded unemployment insurance.

As seen in the executive orders signed on day 1, President Biden has quickly mobilized to appoint an official COVID-19 response coordinator, as well as require social distancing and mask-wearing on all federal property, by federal employees. HR should also know about the "100 Days Masking Challenge", which urges Americans to wear masks and implement public measures to stop the spread.

Additionally, we can expect to see changes regarding liability protections from COVID-related lawsuits, and a COVID-19 specific emergency temporary standard (ETS) from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). We expect to see the Biden administration promptly increase worker safety enforcement, with the enactment of an ETS, or some form of rules for employers to protect employees from COVID-19. 

Employers should prepare to update existing COVID-19 related policies per Biden’s plan, and to clearly communicate new rules to all employees. 

Potential New Employment-Related Legislation

Though the legislative filibuster will likely remain intact even after Biden’s inauguration, multiple bills passed in the 116th Congress that received bipartisan support will likely be re-visited in the 117th Congress. Bills to look out for address topics such as multi-employer pensions fixes, pregnancy accommodations at work, and employment-based immigrant visa laws.

  • The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act requires further protections for pregnant employees, in efforts to diminish discrimination against and provide reasonable accommodation for pregnant workers. It’s important for HR to take note of what these accommodations might look like in the workplace, from allowing frequent restroom breaks to leniency around work hours (and updating policies accordingly).

  • With bipartisan support on the multi-employer pension crisis, HR managers can expect to see a combination of increases in premiums and loans regarding pension plans.

  • In regards to the 7% country cap for employment-based immigrant visas, we expect to see movement around the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act of 2019, which aims to eliminate this cap and provide expanded opportunities for immigrants in the US. HR should keep up on movement around the act, and any potential hiring procedures that must be updated.

  • HR managers and business owners should stay in the loop with updates regarding the PRO Act (Protecting the Rights to Organize Act), which is a top labor priority for congressional Democrats that reinforces employees’ ability to unionize. The bill would prohibit right-to-work laws, codify “ambush” elections, allow for new civil penalties,  codify “persuader regulations”, and require binding arbitration for first contracts, among many other provisions. Legislation this significant will impact employer regulations, from hiring to policy-making.

  • Pursuit of more progressive labor policies, like the increase of federal minimum wage, is also on the Biden agenda. Biden campaigned on updating the federal minimum wage to $15/hour to address the cost of living increases in the past decade. Though we are not yet certain at the possibility of this change, HR should be prepared to answer questions around elimination of tipped wages and the Raise the Wage Act.

Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion Training

Included in the Executive Orders that President Biden signed on his first day are orders to strengthen workplace discrimination protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The Biden administration revoked President Trump’s Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping, which has received backlash from civil rights activists, as well as the business community. Additionally, by ending the Trump Administration's 1776 Commission, Biden revoked the previous executive order limiting the ability for federal agencies and other institutions to have diversity and inclusion training. HR managers should be prepared to expect required DEI training, implicit bias training, and additional DEI education programs to be put into place in the near future. Biden may also pursue an updated version of former President Barack Obama’s Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces order

Political Discussions in the Workplace

In the deep throes of a polarizing presidential election, employers and HR managers can expect to see political discussions/debates in the workplace, and must be prepared to address any issues that arise. To prevent conversations and differing viewpoints from escalating to a toxic work environment, provide your workers with guidance on navigating such discussions. How much you regulate these discussions depends on how involved you’d like to be -- for some, encouraging light and constructive conversations around politics is enough, whereas for others, it may be practical to create a custom-policy around politics in the workplace in the event that discussions get heated.

Being able to create new policies, send & sign documents, and set clear expectations regarding politics is key for a successful HR department. A modern HRIS can take the manual work out of policy updates, document management, and employee acknowledgements to keep everyone on the same page. In addition, HR software like GoCo gives HR managers access to an on-demand HR support center for professional guidance and legislation updates.

How can HR prepare for the Presidential Transition?

The real answer is that there is no right answer. As past presidential transitions have taught us, labor reform, from policies to regulations, is never set in stone. Even with Biden’s agenda, other items are sure to come up and even overtake existing priorities. As an HR manager, the best you can do is set yourself up for success, by:

  • Reviewing existing policies and updating them as legislation changes. Though it is uncertain which policies will change during Biden’s presidency, HR should review existing policies to ensure they are up-to-date with current best practices. Policies to review include anything from employee handbooks to anti-discrimination, remote work and COVID-19 paid leave policies. If updates or new policies are needed, GoCo’s advanced Magic Docs technology allows you to easily add new custom fields, clauses, and updates to policies for fool-proof employee communication. 

  • Automate your existing HR processes to minimize the potential for errors. With potential new DEI training, COVID-19 laws, and labor updates to keep up with, now may be the perfect time to standardize existing processes and checklists that are eating up your time. Employee management platforms like GoCo help streamline processes like remote onboarding, benefits administration, payroll set-up, and compliance updates so you can focus on higher-value projects like employee engagement and performance management. GoCo’s workflows feature allows you to turn any existing checklist into an automatically triggered workflow, so you can optimize your time. 

Though many executive orders have already been signed, nothing is certain as far as what the Biden administration will bring for HR and employment regulations. Regardless, HR should continue to prepare for an aggressive regulatory and labor reform agenda in 2021 to stay ahead of the curve.