Labor Department Looking Into Worker Center Scrutiny: Acosta

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By Ben Penn and Tyrone Richardson

Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta is in the midst of reviewing the legal status of alternative worker organizing centers that business groups want to see classified as unions, he told lawmakers Nov. 15.

At a House committee hearing in which Acosta otherwise repeated previous statements on apprenticeship, overtime pay, and fiduciary advice for retirement savers, the secretary’s remarks on worker centers provided a glimpse into how his department may revise its interpretation of laws governing union financial disclosures.

“What can we do to work to define” worker centers under the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act to “show people that they’re just a front for labor unions?,” Rep. Francis Rooney (R-Fla.) asked Acosta, during an oversight hearing before the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

“It’s something that we’re looking at, and I’m happy to follow up with your office,” Acosta replied, after noting that he was asked a similar question during a recent meeting.

Conservative think tanks and lobby groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have advocated for organizations like the Fight for $15, OUR Walmart, and Restaurant Opportunities Centers United to be classified as traditional labor organizations subject to the same financial disclosure rules as unions. Among those who have previously urged the DOL to focus on this review is Nathan Mehrens, who is now the department’s acting assistant secretary for policy.

Worker centers have gained increasing clout and relevance in recent years. They’ve served as new mechanisms to give workers a voice on the job, particularly in the service and retail sectors where unions say federal labor law has been interpreted in a way that makes it difficult for workers to organize.

Revived OLMS

The DOL’s Office of Labor-Management Standards, which enforces the LMRDA, doesn’t have any politically-appointed personnel thus far in the Trump administration. But the office in the past has set policy directions to prioritize robust oversight of large union headquarters when Republicans control the executive branch.

Committee Chairwoman Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) also asked Acosta for a detailed response on what his department plans to do to restore the OLMS to its previous capacity, after funding dropped during the Obama administration. Acosta didn’t have time to reply, but said he would submit his answer in writing.

“I’d like to see if [OLMS] is going to be more of an emphasis in this administration,” Foxx told Bloomberg Law after she adjourned the hearing. Asked about accusations from union supporters that OLMS has been deployed under prior Republican administrations to harass unions, Foxx said everybody needs to play by the rules.

Secretary Stays on Script

Members from both parties queried Acosta on what has been his primary policy focus this year: an effort to expand the number of apprenticeships by handing over more authority to employers.

Acosta said that while the ongoing implementation of President Donald Trump’s apprenticeship executive order is tailored to industry-recognized standards, that doesn’t preclude the DOL from maintaining the previous registration process for the job training model.

Lawmakers also asked about the administration’s ongoing review of a list of a workplace regulations finalized under the Obama administration.

This marks Acosta’s first appearance before the House Education and the Workforce Committee since he was sworn into office in late April.

His testimony comes as the Workforce committee has largely focused this year on legislation aimed at reversing several National Labor Relations Board decisions from the Obama administration.

The department is embarking on a new regulatory proposal to update the salary threshold below which workers qualify for overtime pay. But Democrats pressed Acosta to uphold provisions of the Obama administration’s version of the rule. That rule was ultimately shot down by a federal judge.

The DOL is in in the process of reviewing the Obama administration’s controversial fiduciary rule, and is poised to finalize an 18-month delay of the most onerous parts of the rule for financial advisers. The rule aims to cut down on conflicted investment advice given to retirement savers.

Attention on Job Corps

Foxx and some Republican committee members pressed Acosta to provide an update on efforts the DOL is taking to improve safety at its Job Corps facilities. Congress has been questioning the safety of DOL’s workforce development program for disadvantaged youth as a response to the death of two students in 2015.

The Workforce committee held a hearing in June for an update on measures to improve safety at Job Corps sites. Also, Foxx’s office earlier this year sent Acosta a letter seeking a status report on how the DOL is improving safety. Acosta Nov. 15 said the DOL is taking a number of steps to improve job safety.

“We have implemented a zero tolerance policy where if individuals engage in violence, or if there are safety concerns the individuals will not be at the job center,” Acosta said. “They will not be part of the program.”

Some Democrats criticized the lack of time to ask more questions within the hearing’s two-hour window. Following the hearing, ranking Democrat Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) said the hearing was informative and showed Democrats have lingering concerns.

“I think important questions got asked and he responded, but you could see from the questions there’s a lot disagreement with the direction the department is going in on issues from OSHA, minimum wage, fiduciary rule, state-based IRAs and a lot of other things we disagree on,” he said. The goal of the hearing is “to get answers on the record and I think we got some important answers on the record that we will be following through on.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Ben Penn and Tyrone Richardson in Washington at bpenn@bna.com and trichardson@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bna.com

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