In Britain, the coalition government of David Cameron hopes to stimulate much-needed hiring by reducing state interference with private employers’ right to choose their own workforces. Per the Telegraph, Cameron “hopes that relaxed employment laws will help to boost the private sector and encourage firms to take on thousands of new workers.”
For all the high hopes, the changes are in fact quite modest. Newly hired workers will wait two years, rather than one, before obtaining the power to challenge later firings before official tribunals. To discourage doomed or trivial claims, disgruntled workers will be charged a fee for resorting to a tribunal. The smallest employers will be exempted from some portions of the law, and so forth.
Judged by the “employment at will” principle that best exemplifies liberty of individual contract, Britain’s job market will remain far too highly regulated. But the direction of change is interesting. Despite the frequent impression that “Eurosclerosis” (and its equivalents elsewhere) puts the patient on a one-way course of decline, nations around the globe have repeatedly sought to shake off economic malaise by pulling back from labor regulation toward liberty of contract. Often these steps have stimulated exactly the economic expansions hoped for, as with Margaret Thatcher’s reforms in Britain in the 1980s and with New Zealand’s less famous yet more radical 1991 reforms. Alas, in both Britain and New Zealand, later Labour governments reimposed some (not all) of the previous types of regulation in deference to their union and Left constituencies.
What of the United States? For the most part, we’ve resisted the worst Euro labor-market practices — which has required us to ignore prevailing opinion among labor and employment specialists in our law schools, most of whom (as I’ve argued at book length in the past, and mention again in my forthcoming book on the influence of law schools) tend to support a great many bad proposals to restrict private employers’ liberty to hire and fire. Yet in our own distinctive way — which owes more to lawsuits and less to administrative tribunals — we keep edging toward European-style notions of workplace tenure. Newly released numbers show that federal complaints of employment bias surged to record levels last year, up 7 percent, led by a 17 percent spike in disability-discrimination claims, which now represent one-quarter of the nearly 100,000 total.
The newly activist posture of the Obama Equal Employment Opportunity Commission may have contributed to the trend a bit, and so may the state of the economy: laid-off workers may be more willing to pursue lawsuits when job prospects are bleak. But the main responsibility goes to the ADA Amendments Act passed by Congress in 2008 and signed by none other than Republican President George W. Bush, in this respect continuing his father’s tradition of uncritically endorsing almost any measure labeled as a matter of disabled rights. Among its other provisions, the 2008 ADA Amendments Act reversed a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions that had tended to limit the scope of coverage of the ADA to persons with more severe disabilities. It also bestowed new rights to sue on persons “regarded as” disabled whether or not their actual medical condition so qualifies. The overall effect of the changes is to make it hard if not impossible to argue that a disability is too minor to deserve accommodation: “Challenging the employee’s ‘disability’ status is a waste of time with the new expanded definition of ‘disability’,” per one employer advisor. Karen Harned and Katelynn McBride have much more on the amendments in a new article in the Federalist Society publication “Engage.”
Once again, both major political parties pave the way to excessive regulation. And that makes it harder politically for an equivalent of Cameron’s reforms to come along here.