Confirmation would be blow to workers

4/8/2017, 10:05 a.m.
Alexander Acosta, the 45th president’s nominee for U.S. Secretary of Labor, is up for confirmation by the U.S. Senate. He ...
Julianne Malveaux

Julianne Malveaux

Alexander Acosta, the 45th president’s nominee for U.S. Secretary of Labor, is up for confirmation by the U.S. Senate. He got narrow approval on March 30 from the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions by a 12-11 party line vote. 

I don’t blame the Democrats for opposing Mr. Acosta’s nomination. In his televised hearing, he was as slippery as U.S. Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, dancing around questions and so exasperating U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts that she said, “This has really been frustrating. You have dodged every one of my questions. None of these were trick questions.”

Sen. Warren tried to pin down Mr. Acosta on overtime rules. Presently, workers who earn more than $23,660 do not qualify for time and a half, or overtime, pay. Someone who earns that little is earning just over $11 an hour. They hardly qualify as “executives.”

Former President Obama had proposed that the ceiling be doubled, so that anyone earning under $47,320 could collect overtime. Four million more workers would have overtime protection. 

Mr. Acosta said he would take the lead from his boss, the 45th president, but indicated that the ceiling should be less than $47,000. He prefers something in the $33,000 range.

Will you stand up for workers, Sen. Warren asked him. That’s the purpose of the Labor Department. We have so many government departments who take care of corporations, but only the Labor Department takes care of the little person. The department’s regulations on occupational safety and health, pay fairness and discrimination protect workers when employers are indifferent to their safety and welfare. 

But the 45th president’s “budget lite” proposes a 21 percent cut in the Labor Department budget. It would eliminate some job training programs, including the Senior Community Service Employment Program, close Job Corps Centers, eliminate parts of the Office of Disability Employment Policy and eliminate the Occupational Safety and Health Administration “unproven training grants.”

This “America First” budget is disgraceful in its frequent use of words like “ineffective,” “unproven,” “inefficient” and “eliminate,” as if there has been any study done in the scant 60 days of this administration to prove inefficiency.

Indeed, while we weren’t paying much attention, 45 signed legislation that took away occupational safety protections for those working for federal contractors. Former President Obama required companies competing for federal contracts to disclose and fix safety violations. But the U.S. Senate voted to revoke the Fair Pay and Safe Workplace Rule. Some Republicans said it “wasn’t fair” that companies with workplace violations couldn’t get federal contracts.

Mr. Acosta doesn’t have the baggage that restaurant executive Andrew Puzder, did. The president’s first nominee for labor secretary was such a hot mess that he withdrew from consideration. 

Mr. Acosta is a lifelong public servant and now dean of Florida International University’s law school and chairman of the board of the US Century Bank. 

Despite the fact that Mr. Acosta will be only the first Hispanic on the Trump cabinet and the fact that his background — undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard — seems impeccable, he is likely to be nothing but a disappointment for workers. Not only will he likely do less for overtime than former President Obama required, but he will likely limit rules that limit worker exposure to cancer-causing substances, and require financial advisers to work in the best interest of their clients. Essentially, he has indicated he will follow 45’s lead, and President Trump is notoriously anti-regulation.

Mr. Acosta had to offer an apology for past behavior. As a former assistant attorney general, he had an employee who described conservatives as “real” Americans.  The rest of us, apparently, are “commies and pinkos.” Never should have happened, he told the Senate committee. While the apology was appropriate, what does he really think of liberals? Will it affect his ability to enforce labor laws?

Unlike his boss, Mr. Acosta at least has enough integrity to apologize when he is wrong. But his shillyshallying testimony suggests that he doesn’t have many opinions of his own, only President Trump’s. He doesn’t have a problem with the 45th president’s plans to shrink the Labor Department and he might support elimination of the Women’s Bureau. 

Mr. Acosta is bad news wrapped up in a slick package. His confirmation would be a blow to working people.

The writer is an economist, author and founder of Economic Education.