U.S. labor machinery frozen by government shutdown


By Carlyn Kolker and Amanda Becker

Oct 3 (Reuters) - The federal government shutdown has begunto paralyze the legal machinery that governs many of therelationships between U.S. employers and workers.

The National Labor Relations Board, which reviews labordisputes and oversees union elections, is down to just 11employees - with the other 1,600 sent home.

Phones are going unanswered and some websites are frozenbecause of the shutdown, now in its third day. The NLRB's homepage declares it is "currently closed due to a lapse inappropriated funds" and asks visitors to "click here to view ourShutdown Plan."

At the 16,000-employee U.S. Department of Labor, whichoversees everything from training veterans to overseeing minesafety to issuing employment reports, only about 3,000 areconsidered essential and are still working.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security's E-Verify system,which businesses use to screen whether workers have the properimmigration status, is unavailable. Eighty percent of theagency's staff is on furlough.

At the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, whichenforces the country's workplace discrimination laws, about 100workers are showing up - out of more than 2,100.

In New York City, a legal fight between media giantCablevision Systems Corp and some of its New York-basedworkers - locked in a high-profile unionization struggle - hasbeen frozen because its judges and attorneys have beenfurloughed.

In Waltham, Massachusetts, votes in a union election toorganize adjunct professors at Bentley University were set to betallied on Friday by the NLRB, but now may go uncounted untilthe government resumes operations.

"For all intents and purposes, the agencies are stopped intheir tracks," said Ilyse Wolens Schuman, an attorney with lawfirm Littler Mendelson in Washington who represents employers.

"There are a lot of unanswered questions, such as if youhave a deadline, what happens?" said Schuman. "And there is noone at the other end of the phone to answer those questions."

Companies that want to make sure they are conforming withthe law can't get through to regulators, she said. "Employerswho want to call the EEOC or the DOL about their compliancequestions are getting a recording."

Many regulators and enforcement officials in the employmentlaw world are on furlough. As a result, trials are gettinghalted; motions are going unanswered; claims are not beinginvestigated; cases are getting stayed; and union elections arestopping. It all adds up to uncertainty and exasperation.

"These workers need a remedy," said Gabrielle Semel, anattorney for the Communications Workers of America, the uniontrying to organize the Cablevision workers.

The administrative trial against Cablevision, which began onSept. 16, was taking place at an NLRB office in MidtownManhattan. Cablevision had been expected to begin presenting itswitnesses this week.

A spokeswoman for Cablevision declined to comment.

The worldwide offices of the U.S. Customs and ImmigrationServices offices, which handles employment-related matters suchas issuing green card, are open, according to its web site.

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