Obama's HR Legacy
Regardless of how history will ultimately view President Obama's legacy, experts agree that his enormous impact on healthcare and the workplace won't be forgotten anytime soon.
By Carol Patton
How will HR leaders remember President Barack Obama in 10 or 20 years from now? Will he be perceived as an effective leader during tough times, a champion of individual rights, or maybe a president who bombarded employers with overkill regulations and administrative burdens?
It is, of course, too soon to tell, partially because national and global events, business practices, public opinion and the economy. What seemed wrong yesterday might be the right course of action tomorrow. Whether President Obama's legacy ends up being celebrated or derided, his enormous impact on healthcare and the workplace has left an indelible mark on the country.
Christine Walters, an HR and employment-law consultant at FiveL Co. in Westminster, Md., believes the president will be remembered for his strong advocacy role supporting demographic groups that have been "historically disadvantaged," she says, pointing to minorities, those with disabilities, and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community as examples.
His advocacy, she says, has produced new employment laws and regulations involving issues such as overtime pay, a stricter definition of independent contractors and, of course, his signature legislation -- the Affordable Care Act. "He got [the ACA] done in his administration and, regardless of what happens in the future, it's another demonstration of his stewardship or advocacy," Walters says.
However, Obama's inability to achieve any significant compromise with a Republican-held Congress is likely to cast a pall over his accomplishments, she says, comparing the president's relationship with Congress to children throwing sand -- and blame -- at each other. She wonders if future generations will focus on this partisan gridlock, believing that either the president should have extended an olive branch or that Congress' heels were dug in so far that there was no chance for positive change.
"[T]he process could hang him up," she says, "because the legacy that employers are left with is trying to comply with this list of foreseen or unforeseen consequences."
While most agree with the intent of some employment regulations -- including equal pay for equal work -- she says dialogue was needed with employers or HR professionals -- instead of executive orders -- to avoid the costly business impact of these regulations, such as onerous reporting requirements.
Meanwhile, Tammy McCutchen says she admires Obama's accomplishments in the HR space, but believes his legacy will need to be defended as his employment regulations have made it more difficult for U.S. employers to operate.
"People will remember the process, the fact that he was able to circumvent Congress in order to implement things like an increase in the minimum wage, paid sick leave . . . ," says McCutchen, Washington-based principal at Littler law firm. "[He's] made a lot of changes through the power of his pen."
The verdict on Obama's legacy may depend upon the upcoming election, she says. If Republicans reclaim the White House, she believes the next president may have the political courage to withdraw these executive orders. She points to Department of Labor Secretary Thomas Perez and David Wild, the administrator of DOL's wage and hour division, who made substantial employment changes through the president's executive orders.
But even if that occurs, HR professionals and attorneys will still have a "sour taste" in their mouths for a very long time, she says, because of how the president achieved his domestic goals and the direction he set for the DOL.
McCutchen says the DOL -- which no longer offers compliance assistance to organizations -- views employers "as a block of bad-faith actors who will do all they can to exploit their workers. . . ."
Among the DOL actions that HR professionals may remember most is that administrative interpretations were written without asking questions or soliciting advice from private-sector employers or HR professionals.
Still, McCutchen adopts a wait-and-see attitude about how future generations will perceive the 44th president. Did he change too much, too fast? Was he tilting at windmills or invisible enemies? Or maybe these federal protections for employees were needed after all? Only time will tell.
Few can say the president was idle during his time in office. Besides appointing two U.S. Supreme Court justices -- and possibly a third -- he significantly impacted the makeup of federal courts. When he first came into office, Republicans dominated 10 of 13 courts. Now, Democrats control nine out of 13, says Cara Woodson Welch, Washington-based vice president of external affairs and practice leadership at WorldatWork.
"One of the key places that now has a Democratic majority is the D.C. Circuit Court," she says. "It is the exclusive court to consider appeals of federal-agency regulations and decisions that affect the entire country. It's a very powerful court, in terms of the direction of public policy for the United States."
While in office, she says, Obama shined a spotlight on many issues that impacted HR, employees and employers. He signed hundreds of bills into law, including The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 and the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010, which includes several executive-compensation and corporate-governance requirements.
"The vast majority of presidents I've looked at over time, what we think about them as they leave office really changes over time," says Woodson Welch. "We may not see the impact [of Obama's actions] until we get a little further away [in order to see] whether what he or Congress did really was enough to keep us moving forward."
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