Defense contractors have come up with a particularly devious way to undermine the automatic cuts to the military budget in a way that could impact the Presidential election. Under the Worker Adjustment, Retraining and Notification (WARN) Act of 1988, government employees must be notified 60 days in advance of any layoffs. Defense contractors are taking that to mean that they must give such pink slips to practically their entire workforce, consisting of hundreds of thousands of employees, to comply with the law. This is notably one of the first times that a government contractor has ever proactively complied with the WARN Act, they typically must be hounded to warn their workers. But this would have the effect of freaking out politicians with the threat of massive layoff notices four days before the 2012 election (60 days from the trigger enactment date of January 2 would be November 2, the Friday before the election). What’s more, Democrats have argued that the WARN Act does not compel defense contractors to deliver blanket notices.
The Labor Department concurred with this, and in a guidance, they told defense contractors that it would be “inappropriate” to send out the notices. “To provide such notice would be inconsistent with the purpose of the WARN Act,” the memo reads, saying that the law cautioned against overbroad notices, and anyway, federal agencies have 120 days to implement the sequester, changing the deadlines at issue.
So naturally, Buck McKeon, chair of the House Armed Services Committee, told defense contractors to defy the Labor Department and send out the notices anyway. He’s also trying to turn the Labor Department’s recommendation into some kind of scandal.
Now, Republican leaders are asking the Labor Department to hand over documents backing up its decision, which was laid out in a memo issued last week. They’ve also pushed for legislation that would require contractors to issue the layoff warnings required under the 1988 WARN Act.
“To think that one of the agencies of the Obama administration would give guidance not to follow the law of the land – a judge would laugh at that,” McKeon told reporters.
Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, disagreed. “This is an important and correct interpretation of the law,” he said in a statement. “There is no reason to needlessly alarm hundreds of thousands of workers.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, currently on a “don’t cut the military budget” road tour, concurred with McKeon, saying that the notices should go out before the election. And he was pretty clear that he was making a political argument in calling for that. “The more it becomes real to us as to what comes the nation’s way, the more likely we are to solve the problem,” Graham said.
But wanting to use layoff notices to pressure Congress is a particularly cynical activity. Real people would face the anxiety of those decisions, and in most cases needlessly. Lockheed Martin, which floated sending notices to 100,000 workers, then admitted that no more than 10,000 would ultimately be affected. So 90,000 employees would get frightened for no reason. This is the very definition of “playing politics with people’s lives.” And it’s unnecessary under the WARN Act, for the aforementioned reasons.
My guess would be that some contractors go through with this. When big money is on the line, people will do anything to try to stop the losses.