Will the Labor Secretary Help Labor?

Photo credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

From The New York Times:

by The Editorial Board

R. Alexander Acosta had an advantage last week when he appeared before the Senate committee overseeing his nomination by President Trump to be secretary of labor: He was not Andrew Puzder, the unqualified fast-food executive and Mr. Trump’s first choice, who had to withdraw in the face of public and senatorial opposition to his appointment.

Unlike Mr. Puzder, Mr. Acosta, the dean of the law school at Florida International University, has a record of government service, having been a member of the National Labor Relations Board, the chief of the Justice Department’s civil rights division and the United States attorney for the Southern District of Florida.

Still, his testimony suggests that as labor secretary his primary goal would not be to look out for workers by promoting fair pay and workplace safety. Instead, he seems more interested in shielding employers from having to address those concerns.

For example, when asked whether he would appeal a recent court ruling that blocked an Obama administration regulation to expand eligibility for overtime pay, Mr. Acosta declined to answer, saying he would need to consult with Labor Department lawyers. But then he went on about what he saw as the regulation’s drawbacks for employers. He also echoed the court’s contorted argument, saying that the Labor Department may not have the authority to update the overtime rules, as it did during the Obama administration.

The disturbing takeaway was that Mr. Acosta would not defend the new overtime standards, which are desperately needed. By government estimates, 4.2 million workers earning salaries between $455 and $913 a week would become newly eligible for overtime if the regulation took effect. By more liberal estimates, another roughly eight million workers who are currently denied overtime on the basis of their job duties would have a stronger claim to it under the new rule’s clear and updated standards, including millions who live in states that went for Mr. Trump.

Mr. Acosta’s answers to questions about other worker protections were also troubling. He would not commit to upholding a Labor Department rule, set to take effect in April, that would require financial advisers to put clients’ interests first when giving advice or selling investments for 401(k) rollovers or other retirement-related transactions. Nor would he commit to enforcing a rule to protect construction workers from carcinogenic dust.

Mr. Acosta tried to justify his evasions by citing directives from Mr. Trump to review and possibly roll back pending rules before moving forward with them. But that dodges the issue. It is important to know what he thinks, because it would be his job to educate and influence the president on labor-policy matters. His reticence at the hearing suggests he will — or already does — embrace the Trump administration’s demolition approach to sensible regulation.

Read more from The New York Times