House Committee Seeks Answers on Affordable Care Act's Funding of Worker Centers

On November 1, key House lawmakers sent a letter to the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, requesting information on Affordable Care Act funding of so-called “worker centers.”  Worker centers, also known as Union Front Organizations (UFOs), are typically non-profit organizations that offer a variety of services to their members, including education, training, employment services and legal advice.  However, as discussed during a House Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor, and Pensions hearing in September, these organization have also been directly engaging employers or groups of employers to effectuate change in the wages, hours and terms and conditions of workers they claim to represent. In essence, they are behaving – for all intents and purposes – as labor unions, without being subject to National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA) requirements. Notably, such UFOs are not required to file LMRDA conflict of interest disclosures, or abide by the ban on secondary boycotts under the NLRA.  UFOs have been instrumental in the rise of flash mob strikes occurring in front of retail and restaurant establishments to demand an increase in the minimum wage. 

According to House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-MN) and Health, Employment, Labor, and Pensions Subcommittee Chairman Phil Roe (R-TN), at least two worker centers, the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) and the Retail Action Project (RAP), have received grants to serve as navigators under the Affordable Care Act.  The congressmen explain that under section 1311 of the ACA, “entities with an existing relationship, or those that could readily establish a relationship, with employer and employees, consumers, or self-employed individuals likely to be qualified to enroll in a qualified health plan may receive grants to serve as a navigator.”  The roll of such navigators is to educate individuals about, and facilitate enrollment in, qualified health plans under the ACA.  The law requires that the information provided be fair, accurate, and impartial. 

The question remains whether worker centers can be completely impartial. As noted, the labor movement has seized upon worker centers as a tool for expanding membership.  During its annual convention, the AFL-CIO adopted two resolutions backing closer cooperation between the labor organization and worker centers and held a breakout session on ways to create and promote “new forms” of union membership that would appeal to younger workers and nonunion members.  Labor Secretary Thomas Perez noted this partnership in a speech given earlier this week, emphasizing “unions are seeking out new and innovative ways of doing business.” In essence, there is little question that worker centers are being used as an extension of the labor movement. 

Reps. Kline and Roe note this connection in their letter to the HHS, and raise an important concern: “Due to the close association of worker centers with labor unions, the committee wants to ensure personal information collected by worker centers is protected and not used for future labor organizing efforts.”  To this end, by November 18, the committee members have asked the HHS to provide the following information:

  • A list that identifies each non-profit organization incorporated that has applied or received a ACA grant to serve as a navigator under section 501(c)(3) of the tax code;
  • The grant application for each non-profit incorporated that has applied for a ACA grant to serve as a navigator under section 501(c)(3) of the tax code;
  • All documents and communications provided to navigators relating to their duties, responsibilities, and limitations as navigators;
  • All documents and communications relating to the policing and training of navigators, including ensuring fair, accurate, and impartial information; and
  • All documents and communications relating to policing and training of navigators and procedures to protect the privacy of information collected from individuals and employers.

It remains to be seen whether and how the HHS will respond. 

Information contained in this publication is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or opinion, nor is it a substitute for the professional judgment of an attorney.