Biden has ambitious infrastructure goals. Made-in-America rules could slow them.

“The $1 trillion infrastructure law passed last year expanded Buy America rules, which require state and local agencies to buy certain materials made in the United States for federally funded infrastructure projects. Rules that iron, steel, and manufactured products be made in America have been in place for decades, but they’ve traditionally applied to transportation and water-related projects, such as highways, rail, and public transit.
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act’s new rules broadened the scope of goods that have to be produced in the United States by creating a new category for “construction materials.” It also expanded the types of infrastructure projects subject to the requirements to permanently include housing, broadband, and new programs for electric vehicle charging projects for the first time.”

“many state and local officials across the country say the new rules could delay much-needed infrastructure projects and significantly drive up costs amid the fastest inflation in 40 years. Some say they’re already struggling to deal with supply-chain disruptions that have emerged during the pandemic and worry that material shortages could worsen if they’re limited to domestic manufacturers. Higher costs could also lead to fewer projects and soften the impact of the package”

Biden Forgets That Workers Are Consumers Too

“Consider that supposedly worker-centric trade policy. Biden has left in place many of the tariffs imposed by President Donald Trump, including the levies on aluminum and steel. By artificially hiking the price of imported steel, those tariffs are supposed to boost domestic production, creating more and better-paying steelworker jobs. But the cost of the tariffs rebounds onto every industry that uses steel to make other products. While about 57,000 Americans work in steelmaking jobs, more than 12 million are employed in manufacturing jobs that use steel. The tariffs hurt those workers.
Even steelworkers suffer from the tariffs, which raise prices for cars, appliances, and a host of other products. The Peterson Institute for International Economics, a trade policy think tank, estimates that repealing those tariffs would put about $800 back in the average family’s pockets this year.

Biden also has decided to extend tariffs on solar panels and their component parts, which were due to expire this year. In theory, those tariffs promote domestic manufacturing. In reality, they have cost more than 62,000 jobs in the four-plus years since Trump first implemented them by sharply cutting the number of solar panels available for installation and service, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.”

“Trade and labor policies should not be worker-centric or consumer-centric. They should be market-centric, because trade and labor are both parts of a market system that benefits Americans as workers and consumers.”

America Needs More Foreign STEM Talent To Produce Semiconductors. The CHIPS Act Won’t Fix That.

“”The U.S. currently does not produce enough doctorates and master’s degrees in the science, technology, engineering and math fields who can go on to work in U.S.-based microchip plants,” write Brendan Bordelon and Eleanor Mueller for Politico. “The U.S. now produces fewer native-born recipients of advanced STEM degrees than most of its international rivals.”
According to a report from Eightfold AI, which runs a work force artificial intelligence platform,* the U.S. would need to fill between 70,000 and 90,000 fabrication jobs in order to have the numbers necessary for critical applications. And chipmakers are already struggling due to the insufficient availability of workers—the Taiwanese Semiconductor Manufacturing Corporation had aimed to open a new chip fabrication facility in Arizona this September, but had to delay the opening by six months due in part to a labor shortage.

Though the CHIPS Act carries a hefty price tag, it’ll do little to solve the underlying labor shortage that’s stymying domestic production in the short term. All 17 of the semiconductor experts surveyed by the Government Accountability Office noted the need to implement work force development policies, and many specifically suggested immigration reform. The CHIPS Act’s proponents argue that key provisions would help encourage native-born Americans to enter STEM fields and boost the semiconductor labor force down the road. But lawmakers intent on boosting chip manufacturing in the near future would be foolish to neglect foreign talent—much of which is already on American soil.

Allowing foreign-born students educated in STEM fields at American universities to stay in the country could help alleviate the labor shortages that semiconductor firms are facing.”

What a rail strike could mean for you (and the economy)

“Tens of thousands of freight rail workers are prepared to go on strike on Friday at 12:01 am, which could have wide-ranging effects across the economy. It’s already causing some disruptions for rail passengers, freight companies, and others.

The cause is a dispute between the freight industry and the workers who make it run.

Most of the 12 unions representing the workers have already agreed to a proposal put together by a presidential emergency board established by the White House over the summer to try to help resolve the dispute. The proposal includes a 24 percent increase in wages for workers by 2024, but many workers have complained that it fails to address leave, on-call scheduling, and poor working conditions.

The holdout unions’ position is that pay increases aren’t enough to make up for some real downsides — and dangerous aspects — of the job.

The two most powerful unions involved in the negotiations, which represent engineers and conductors, are continuing to resist the proposal, putting both sides in a deadlock. If workers do go on the strike they appear to be hurtling toward, it would be the first such strike in 30 years.”

“If a freight strike were to occur — and especially if it’s long-lasting — it could have disastrous effects across an already fragile economy still reeling from supply chain disruptions and inflation.

“Rail moves a lot of the foundational, basic goods that we don’t think about day-to-day,” said Rachel Premack, editorial director at FreightWaves, which covers supply chains. “They’ll move sand and gravel that would then be crushed into concrete for roads or for laying home foundations. Railroads move the chemicals used to purify water or to compromise fertilizer for crops, soybeans that could become food for humans or [animals] that are then food for humans. It’s a lot of early-chain-type goods.”

Many passenger trains also run on freight rails, and their service could be suspended. Amtrak has already warned of potential disruptions and canceled cross-country trains in anticipation of a strike, though so far its Northeast service will not be affected.”

“Replacing freight with other forms of transportation is not easy if workers do walk out. Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, told Vox in an interview that one train has the freight capacity of 400 semi-trucks. “I don’t know of a shipper who just has 400 semis sitting in a garage ready to be accessed,” he said. He noted that for agriculture, the timing couldn’t be worse because of harvest season, adding more urgency for a deal.”

“Under the Railway Labor Act, Congress has the ability to block or end a rail strike. Since 1963, it has passed legislation more than 10 times to intervene in rail disputes.

So far, though, Democratic leaders have been reluctant to commit to doing so, while Republicans have been eager to pressure workers into agreeing to the terms set by the presidential emergency board.

If Congress were to intervene, there are a few routes lawmakers could take. They could require the unions and carriers to accept the presidential emergency board’s conditions, which included a pay increase but no acknowledgment of other demands like sick leave. They could extend the existing cooling-off period so both sides have more time to negotiate. Or they could turn the talks over to independent arbitrators who would be tasked with finding a resolution.

For now, congressional Democrats are waiting to see what might come out of the talks the Labor Department is leading between unions and railroad carriers on Wednesday before they lay out a policy response.”

Hospitals struggle with staff shortages as federal Covid funds run out

“Hospitals across the country are grappling with widespread staffing shortages, complicating preparations for a potential Covid-19 surge as the BA.5 subvariant drives up cases, hospital admissions and deaths.

Long-standing problems, worker burnout and staff turnover have grown worse as Covid-19 waves have hit health care workers again and again — and as more employees fall sick with Covid-19 themselves.”

Immigrants could help the US labor shortage — if the government would let them

“Amid nationwide labor shortages in critical industries, more than a million immigrants are waiting on the US government to issue them work permits. Without these permits, many could lose their jobs, and some already have.

Biraj Nepal, a Nepali asylum seeker living in Woodland, California, has been working as a software engineer in the IT department of a bank for the last four years. Nepal went on unpaid administrative leave starting on January 26 because his work permit expired and the government has yet to process his renewal application. That has left his employer in a lurch: There’s long been a shortage of IT workers, and the pandemic accelerated that trend as companies went remote. Now, nearly a third of IT executives say that the search for qualified employees has gotten “significantly harder.”

If Nepal isn’t issued a new work permit within 90 days of taking administrative leave, his company will, by law, no longer be able to hold his job for him and will likely look for a contractor to fill his role. Under normal circumstances, that wouldn’t be a concern; work permits are meant to be issued quickly so that immigrants can be self-sufficient even while they are waiting on other applications for visas and green cards, which can take months or years to process. But the backlog at US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has reached crisis level.”

“The pandemic is partly to blame. Monthslong USCIS office closures and staff shortages have created a backlog of more than 8 million applications across all types of immigration benefits — including green cards, visas, and protection from deportation — and most work permit applicants have to be photographed and fingerprinted in person. USCIS was also plagued by a budget crisis under the Trump administration, and work permit applications spiked last fiscal year to an all-time high of 2.6 million, straining the agency’s capacity.

Under President Joe Biden, USCIS has taken some measures to combat the problem, though has stopped short of automatically extending the validity period of expired work permits as advocates have requested. It temporarily waived fingerprinting requirements for some applicants, exempted spouses of certain visa holders from having to apply separately for work authorization, and extended the validity period of newly issued work permits from one to two years for some immigrants who have been admitted to the US on humanitarian grounds. It has also hired new staff, including 200 people in the agency’s asylum division, to address the backlog. But it’s not clear why the agency hasn’t also adopted the extension policy that activists have called for.

Earlier this month, a federal court vacated two Trump-era rules that had restricted access to work permits for asylum seekers, meaning that their applications could be processed more quickly going forward.

“Agency personnel is addressing outstanding processing issues and making changes to underlying procedures to achieve new efficiencies while ensuring the integrity and security of the immigration system. This includes improving processing times and decreasing pending cases,” said Matthew Bourke, a USCIS spokesperson.

But the backlog remains too large to be solved quickly by USCIS’s new policies or the court decisions. That would require additional regulatory action: In addition to extending the validity of expired work permits, the government could also streamline the application form for work permits to speed up processing, Cruz said. That could help immigrants who can’t afford to wait much longer for their applications to be approved.”