Meat processing businesses can expect the challenging labor market to continue, along with increased federal regulatory oversight regarding employees.

Rick Alaniz detailed these and other labor market trends during the “Legal Issues” session as part of the recent American Association of Meat Processors’ 83rd American Convention of Meat Processors & Suppliers’ Exhibition in Des Moines, Iowa.

During his presentation, Alaniz — of Alaniz Law & Associates — said labor and its related legal issues are widespread concerns beyond the meat industry.

“It’s not unique to this industry. It’s across all industries. Nobody can find enough people,” he said, noting that there are 9 million jobs unfilled across the U.S. while Americans have quit their jobs voluntarily at the highest rate since 2000.

Among those willing to take a job, only 34% of employees report being engaged in their job, compared with 53% saying they are not engaged in their job. “They are just there and going through the motions for the most part,” he said.

Even worse, 13% report being actively disengaged with their job. “They could care less about your job,” he said.

That means at any given time, two-thirds of your employees are at risk to leave.

“Treating people right and helping them grow within the company, I can’t emphasize anything greater than that,” Alaniz said regarding the importance of positive employee engagement. “They are your future. They are your company.”

The Biden Administration regulatory agenda

Alaniz said President Biden has been a longtime supporter of labor unions and that emphasis will be reflected in the Administration’s regulatory priorities through aggressive enforcement of all labor laws currently on the books and staffing regulatory agencies with pro-labor administrators, including former union attorneys. The Biden Administration also will require contractors involved in programs such as the federal school lunch program to adopt neutrality clauses regarding union formation by their employees as a condition of doing business with the government.

Another pro-union priority will be the promoting the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which seeks to strengthen federal laws to protect workers’ right to join a union, including eliminating right-to-work laws on the books in 27 states and creating new avenues for employee litigation against employers, Alaniz said.

The past couple of years have been quiet from a regulatory standpoint because of federal workers being home due to COVID-19 precautions, and that is about to change. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), for example, has hired 700 new inspectors, specifically to inspect workplaces.

“They started going back to work in February of this year,” he said of federal regulatory agency workers. “They’re out there now, and they’re back in the saddle.”

The emphasis on labor issues also likely will include a push to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $15, Alaniz said, indicating some Republicans have suggested they might compromise at a $10-per-hour rate. Currently, many states have a minimum wage above the federal minimum, with many at or above $15 and Hawaii at nearly $20 per hour, he said.

Another area of employee compensation that will receive scrutiny is raising the salary threshold for exempt status, with a goal of setting it at $60,000 to $70,000, up from the current threshold of around $35,000.

“Possibly even more, given current inflation rates,” he said.

“This is something that definitely is going to happen, “Alaniz said of Administration efforts to change exempt status rules.

Businesses also can expect the Administration to make workplace gender equity issues and enforcement a priority, including guidance on accommodating transgender workers. “One thing you might want to consider is making all your bathrooms gender-neutral,” he said as one way to approach the issue.

Another gender-related workplace issue that will be an Administration priority is enacting federal paid family leave in some form, Alaniz said.

“There’s just too much pressure for that not to happen,” he said, adding that the issue has some Republican support and is tough to fight against in an election year.