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U.S. labor machinery frozen by government shutdown

By Carlyn Kolker and Amanda Becker

(Reuters) - The federal government shutdown has begun to paralyze the legal machinery that governs many of the relationships between U.S. employers and workers.

The National Labor Relations Board, which reviews labor disputes and oversees union elections, is down to just 11 employees - with the other 1,600 sent home.

Phones are going unanswered and some websites are frozen because of the shutdown, now in its third day. The NLRB's home page declares it is "currently closed due to a lapse in appropriated funds" and asks visitors to "click here to view our Shutdown Plan."

At the 16,000-employee U.S. Department of Labor, which oversees everything from training veterans to overseeing mine safety to issuing employment reports, only about 3,000 are considered essential and are still working.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security's E-Verify system, which businesses use to screen whether workers have the proper immigration status, is unavailable. Eighty percent of the agency's staff is on furlough.

At the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces the country's workplace discrimination laws, about 100 workers are showing up - out of more than 2,100.

In New York City, a legal fight between media giant Cablevision Systems Corp and some of its New York-based workers - locked in a high-profile unionization struggle - has been frozen because its judges and attorneys have been furloughed.

In Waltham, Massachusetts, votes in a union election to organize adjunct professors at Bentley University were set to be tallied on Friday by the NLRB, but now may go uncounted until the government resumes operations.

"For all intents and purposes, the agencies are stopped in their tracks," said Ilyse Wolens Schuman, an attorney with law firm Littler Mendelson in Washington who represents employers.

"There are a lot of unanswered questions, such as if you have a deadline, what happens?" said Schuman. "And there is no one at the other end of the phone to answer those questions."

Companies that want to make sure they are conforming with the law can't get through to regulators, she said. "Employers who want to call the EEOC or the DOL about their compliance questions are getting a recording."

Many regulators and enforcement officials in the employment law world are on furlough. As a result, trials are getting halted; motions are going unanswered; claims are not being investigated; cases are getting stayed; and union elections are stopping. It all adds up to uncertainty and exasperation.

"These workers need a remedy," said Gabrielle Semel, an attorney for the Communications Workers of America, the union trying to organize the Cablevision workers.

The administrative trial against Cablevision, which began on September 16, was taking place at an NLRB office in Midtown Manhattan. Cablevision had been expected to begin presenting its witnesses this week.

A spokeswoman for Cablevision declined to comment.

The worldwide offices of the U.S. Customs and Immigration Services offices, which handles employment-related matters such as issuing green card, are open, according to its web site.

(Reporting by Carlyn Kolker in New York and Amanda Becker in Washington; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Tim Dobbyn)

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