2009 Year in Review: Legislative issues

2009 Year in Review: Legislative issues

As foodservice operators struggled to find a glimmer of light at the end of our long recessionary tunnel, lawmakers in 2009 grappled with a list of vital legislative issues, a number of which could have long-term ramifications for the industry.

President Barack Obama and the Democrat-controlled Congress said they wouldn’t hesitate to confront complex and controversial issues—particularly given the looming 2010 elections, which potentially could erode the Democratic majorities in both houses. And they’ve been true to their word.

As a result, 2009 was a busy year, legislatively speaking.

HEALTH CARE REFORM

With an estimated price tag hovering around $1 trillion over the next decade, health care reform is the big political enchilada. Reform is expected to touch everyone, in one capacity or another. But while restaurateurs say they acknowledge the need to lower costs and increase coverage access, many oppose what they perceive as business-unfriendly measures that will place an unmanageable economic burden on their backs. The House of Representatives narrowly passed the Affordable Health Care for America Act, or HR 3962, which requires employers to either provide a qualified benefits plan for employees and their dependents or else pay a percentage of their payroll into the Health Insurance Exchange. The Senate continued to debate and amend its own bill at press time.

MENU LABELING

Menu labeling remained a controversial issue for the industry in 2009. Last summer a coalition of associations and restaurant chains reached an unprecedented agreement with the Center for Science in the Public Interest and other allied groups to forge a measure that would provide for a uniform national nutrition-labeling standard. The measure, called the Labeling Education and Nutrition, or LEAN, Act, requires the posting of calories on the menu for chains with 20 or more units. The bill, which would supersede all state and local laws, was attached to the House and Senate health care reform bills. Not long afterward, however, a group of restaurant chain executives complained to Congress in a letter that the legislation did not go far enough, and urged policymakers to broaden the scope of the legislation to require more restaurants, convenience stores and supermarkets to post nutrition data for all prepared foods.

UNION CARD CHECK

Restaurateurs and other businesses were successful in convincing the Senate that 2009 was not the best year to pass the Employee Free Choice Act. The bill, which was passed by the House, would have allowed union certification after a majority of workers sign cards if the Senate had voted for it. It also would have implemented certain binding arbitration provisions, which would take effect if a union is certified but the various parties are unable to quickly negotiate a contract. But while business was able to chalk up a victory over Big Labor in 2009, many observers anticipate a new, reworked version of the measure will be introduced in 2010, and the tussle would begin all over again.

FOOD SAFETY

The House passed The Food Safety Enhancement Act, or HR 2794, by a vote of 283 to 142, and the Senate is expected to pass a similar bipartisan measure, which President Obama likely would sign. The measure gives the Food and Drug Administration more power to investigate food producers, require food manufacturers to write and facilitate safety plans, and track and recall unsafe food products, among other things. While the foodservice industry favors stricter food controls, some are concerned that new traceability requirements could burden operators with onerous record keeping.

NO-MATCH

Although the battle over immigration reform is not expected to heat up until next year, restaurateurs got to celebrate in 2009 when the Department of Homeland Security rescinded the unpopular Social Security “no-match” rule. The rule, which was never implemented, would have required employers to fire employees based on discrepancies in their Social Security records. However, DHS did inform all businesses holding federal contracts that they must confirm their workers’ immigration status through the government’s controversial E-Verify database system.

PAID SICK LEAVE

As the H1N1 pandemic sparked increased concerns about infected employees reporting to work and spreading the disease, the Obama administration backed the Healthy Families Act, which seeks to give workers seven sick days a year in companies with 15 or more employees. The measure, which was introduced in the Senate last May by the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, and in the House by Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., has more than 110 sponsors.

Reps. George Miller, D-Calif., chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, and Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., chair of the workforce protections subcommittee, also introduced The Emergency Influenza Containment Act Nov. 3. The measure would guarantee up to five paid sick days for employees who are told by their supervisors to go home or stay home because of a contagious illness.

In addition, the New York City Council introduced local legislation requiring businesses with more than 10 employees to offer them the opportunity to earn up to nine days of paid sick leave each year. If passed New York would join San Francisco and Washington, D.C., in requiring paid sick leave.

“We are forced into making decisions without perfect information: Delay a decision by even a day and the economy will have changed shape once again. Business in this climate is more art than science.”—Howard Schultz, chairman and CEO of Starbucks, in The Huffington Post

MEAL TAX DEDUCTION

Near and dear to the restaurant industry’s heart, the federal tax deduction for business meals was revisited this year when Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, introduced HR 3333, which would increase the deduction from 50 percent to 80 percent. While this marked the 16th year that restaurants have unsuccessfully pursued this change, hope springs eternal, and the industry applauded the measure.