ASTA members were most hopeful for action on the Trusted Traveler REAL ID Relief Act of 2020. Sponsored by Rep. Debbie Lesko (AZ-8th), the draft legislation is intended to ease the transition of the long-awaited REAL ID program, which experts believe could lead to 500,000 travelers being turned away every week at Transportation Security Administration (TSA) airport security checkpoints starting this October.
On Oct. 1, 2020, an estimated 99 million Americans will not have identification in compliance with the 9/11 Committee’s proposed rules, designed to ensure that all travelers have been fully vetted before boarding domestic flights.
“Both of our Senators, [Democrat Sherrod] Brown and [Republican Rob] Portman, collaborated in December on a REAL ID public service announcement,” noted Dave Hershberger, CTC, VTA, president of Prestige Travel Services, and ASTA’s current chair of the Board of Directors. “It’s the kind of issue that you would think all legislators can get behind because it impacts all constituents, regardless of their political party.”
The IC controversy
Participants were less sanguine about the opportunity to move along harmonization of the rules defining who is and isn’t an independent contractor (IC). ASTA supports the Modern Worker Empowerment Act (H.R. 4069/S. 2973), and members working Capitol Hill this week were seeking co-sponsors for the legislation.
ASTA currently favors the “right-to-control” rules enforced by the Internal Revenue Service, as they permit small business owners like travel advisors to run their businesses in the travel industry’s current IC/host ecosystem. The Department of Labor rules are more complex, and on occasion, have caused travel agencies to have to reclassify ICs as employees.
Currently, the Senate and House bills are sponsored only by Republicans. One of the chief goals of this year’s Legislative Day was to encourage more Democrats to get behind the issue.
“That might be tougher,” admitted Eben Peck, executive vice president, advocacy, ASTA. “For Democratic members, they’re concerned about how unions might perceive the legislation. That’s why our goal was to educate legislators this week, that this is not about what many people see as a partisan issue. It’s about ensuring business owners who are choosing to operate their businesses under a travel agency host, can continue to do so without the fear of being outside the Labor Department’s rules.”
“The words ‘independent contractor’ definitely set off the antennae in some of the Democratic legislator’s offices,” Hershberger said. “You could see this one staffer shut down on us until we explained how agency ICs work, and that this is not about trying to deny employees benefits. When she understood how ICs operate, you could see her re-engage.”
Calling all travel advisors
ASTA President & CEO Zane Kerby noted that election years can raise barriers to passing legislation, making it even more critical for advisors to speak up in 2020. “Sometimes, there can be a hesitancy to move on legislation,” he said. “But that can be overcome if staffers and legislators are hearing a lot from voters in their districts.”
Hershberger, who has been attending Legislative Days for six years, strongly urged members to write to or visit their representatives regarding REAL ID and the IC harmonization issues.
“In the past, we’ve tried to take on some hot-button issues that one party or the other wasn’t eager to address,” he said. “You saw that with our efforts to open up travel to Cuba. There were some legislators who just didn’t want to hear about it.”
However, this year, he said, “I very much felt that the staffs we met with are open to working on legislation that improves the lives of Americans. Perhaps we chose two issues you would hope both parties could get behind.”
“I felt very strongly this week, a true willingness to be bipartisan,” said Chris Seddelmeyer, ACC, VTA, owner, Seddelmeyer Travel Concepts, in Lima, Ohio. “When you go and talk face-to-face with your legislator, and their staff, I think you’ll feel better about how government is working for us, more than you might perceive through what is often reported. I was very encouraged.”
ASTA strongly urged its own members and other travel agents to schedule meetings with their representatives.
“Whether you’re able and willing to visit Washington, or if it’s easier, visit your congressperson’s local district offices, this is your chance to help your representatives understand these issues from your perspective,” Peck said. “That education could change a legislator’s view regardless of what you think their party’s stance is.”