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By Ben Penn
Nathan Mehrens, who criticized Obama-era labor policies when he helmed the conservative group Americans for Limited Government, is now running the Labor Department’s policy shop.
Mehrens is the department’s deputy assistant secretary for policy, DOL spokeswoman Jennifer Hazelton confirmed to Bloomberg BNA June 26. That makes him the top political official at the office in charge of moving regulations along to the White House for approval.
Mehrens kept a close watch on the activities of unions and worker centers during his time at ALG. In 2013, he submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the DOL seeking details on whether the New York Chapter of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United should be classified as a labor organization, and not a worker center, according to a document obtained by Bloomberg BNA. Separately, Mehrens has written that some worker centers should be subjected to the same disclosure requirements as traditional unions.
Mehrens has been a Trump administration DOL transition official since December, first on the agency’s landing team and then the DOL “beachhead team” on Inauguration Day as a temporary political appointee. Hazelton didn’t specify whether Mehrens’ move to the policy office means the White House would consider nominating him as the assistant secretary for policy, a position that requires Senate confirmation.
Bloomberg BNA reported June 6 that Mehrens was in line to direct the DOL’s Office of Labor-Management Standards, which is where he worked as a senior attorney under President George W. Bush. It appears the slew of empty political seats at DOL agencies prompted Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta to tap Mehrens to head the policy office overseeing regulations for all of the department’s subagencies.
By installing a political official at the office, the DOL may be ready to speed up efforts to reconsider regulations issued under President Barack Obama.
The department faces a June 30 deadline to file a brief in its appeal of a federal judge’s decision to put the overtime rule on hold. The rule was expected to make some 4 million workers newly eligible for time-and-a-half pay. Several other controversial regulations finalized in 2016, such as the persuader, fiduciary, and silica rules, are now being reconsidered in a White House that’s made regulatory rollback a priority.
“If they are going to move regs, you would think that they would want political leadership in” the office of the assistant secretary for policy, “which runs the regulatory process and traditionally is the primary contact for the department with OIRA,” Sharon Block, who ran the same policy office during Barack Obama’s presidency, told Bloomberg BNA via email. OIRA is the White House agency that reviews draft regulations and moves them for publication.
Acosta remains the only Senate-confirmed DOL official. The White House nominated Patrick Pizzella for deputy labor secretary June 20.
Mehrens’ influence over DOL policies may be perceived as hostile to the labor movement. He worked at the OLMS in the 2000s when the office frequently audited large international unions in a program slated for restoration in the most recent DOL budget request. He was also in charge of drafting regulations that required increased union financial disclosure.
Mehrens’ 2013 FOIA request, which was made in his capacity as president and general counsel of Americans for Limited Government, offers signals as to how he might rearrange DOL policy priorities. The previous administration’s labor secretary, Thomas Perez, was considered a friend of the labor movement. Perez and his top officials hailed worker centers as an essential, innovative model of worker voice to ensure employees are still protected on the job even when they lack a union contract.
But as worker centers became increasingly popular over the last eight years, the DOL is now expected to at least consider taking a close look as to whether the department has been mistakenly classifying them as exempt from the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act.
Mehrens’ FOIA letter sought all correspondence between ROC-NY and OLMS regarding whether ROC-NY is subject to the LMRDA. ROC-NY’s headquarters, ROC United, has drawn the ire of the business community for staging protests to demand improved working conditions at restaurants. ROC was also a key player in organizing opposition to President Donald Trump’s first choice for labor secretary, Andrew Puzder, before the fast-food CEO ultimately withdrew.
ROC United, in a statement provided to Bloomberg BNA, cited the DOL’s mission to promote workers’ welfare.
“We hope that the Department of Labor focuses on enforcing laws protecting restaurant workers against the widespread wage theft and sexual harassment in the restaurant industry,” ROC United said through spokeswoman Sian Lewis. “As a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United works to move America’s lowest paid workers, restaurant workers, up the career ladder by providing job training. We look forward to seeing policy changes that do just that, with the Department of Labor joining us as partners.”
Throughout his tenure at Americans for Limited Government, Mehrens also opined against government employees’ rights to get paid while performing union work on official time.
In a Nov. 17 op-ed, he recommended that a handful of Obama DOL regulations and policies be removed under Trump because of the harm he said they impose on businesses. He included on his list the “persuader rule,” a regulation written by the prior administration’s OLMS that would have expanded disclosure requirements for employers using advisers to fight unionization.
The DOL did not respond to a request for comment on Mehrens’ FOIA request.
To contact the reporter on this story: Ben Penn in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
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