Labor Dept. ‘Cut the Red Tape’ Summit a Business Affair

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By Ben Penn

When the Labor Department convened top stakeholders in October for a closed-door briefing on reversing regulations, business representatives filled the room almost exclusively, according to a document obtained by Bloomberg Law.

Eighty individuals RSVP’d that they would attend the Oct. 2 event at DOL headquarters, titled “Cut the Red Tape: Liberating America from Bureaucracy.” A Bloomberg Law review of the list shows the scheduled guests break down as follows: 53 from industry trade associations; 10 business lobbyists; eight management attorneys; five GOP congressional staffers; and four people from an array of neutral, safety-focused offices. The final list of those confirmed to attend doesn’t include anyone representing workers.

At least four worker advocacy and union representatives tell Bloomberg Law they definitely didn’t receive an invite, even though interagency emails with the event’s co-host, the Small Business Administration Advocacy Office, show DOL civil servants had recommended their presence as top stakeholders.

The Trump administration’s deregulatory mission is targeted to provide businesses with relief from burdensome federal rules, so it’s not surprising that management advocates dominated the room. Still, the absence of any employee representatives that day raises questions about whether the department will consider the views of those who support labor regulations.

An SBA Advocacy Office official told Bloomberg Law that any interested stakeholders are welcome to attend the agency’s bi-monthly meetings, but those events are typically frequented by mostly small business advocates. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, referred Bloomberg Law to the DOL to explain why employee rights groups were apparently removed from consideration.

“The Department of Labor has an open-door policy with stakeholder groups and is in constant engagement with the many sectors that make up the American economy,” a DOL spokesman said in a statement. “The Department continues to accept and review comments and viewpoints from stakeholders as part of the regulatory process.”

An AFL-CIO spokesman told Bloomberg Law that a representative for the union umbrella organization apparently was invited but unable to attend. But an official with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and at least three leading worker rights nonprofits—National Employment Law Project, Interfaith Worker Justice, and Jobs With Justice—said they were never invited. The emails show they were all recommended by several DOL subagencies as top employee-side stakeholders who should attend the event.

White House Wants Regs Slashed

The summit featured remarks and a question-and-answer session led by two of the department’s most senior officials heading up the agency’s regulatory reform effort: chief of staff Nicholas Geale and Acting Assistant Secretary for Policy Nathan Mehrens. Slides of their presentation reviewed by Bloomberg Law showcase the DOL’s commitment to limited government regulatory principles but don’t specify which rules the agency is targeting for reversal.

Now, more than five months after the fall convening, the DOL is off to a measured start in implementing a White House edict to remove all unnecessary, job-impeding regulations inherited from the Obama administration. The absence of worker rights’ advocates—who heralded the prior DOL’s active regulatory agenda—at the Oct. 2 meeting doesn’t mean their voices will be excluded in the overall process, but it does suggest a troubling sign for one of the groups saying their invite must’ve been lost in the mail.

“It’s no surprise that the Labor Department would cut workers and their allies from the guest list for its ‘cut the red tape’ event last fall,” Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, told Bloomberg Law in a statement. “What’s there for working people to celebrate in a regulatory ‘reform’ agenda that cuts corners on workers’ health and safety, cuts overtime pay rights, and cuts off retirement savers’ access to honest advice about their investments?”

Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta has provided an open door for organized labor, Democratic lawmakers, and progressive nonprofits in other instances.

The invitees who said they would attend the event included lobbyists from leading trade groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and Associated Builders and Contractors. Attorneys from corporate law firms Jackson Lewis, Littler Mendelson, and Crowell & Moring also told the DOL they planned to attend.

The DOL briefed the attendees on a White House executive order that requires agencies to eliminate two regulations for every one new rule. The executive order also mandates the agency to form a regulatory reform task force, an effort Bloomberg Law reported in August was being overseen by Mehrens.

The guest list came from an email on Sept. 29, three days before the event. The names don’t necessarily reflect those who actually showed up or logged in via webinar. The list was acquired via a Freedom of Information Act Request and provided to Bloomberg Law.

Differing Views on Regulation

Organized labor and worker groups have opposed the DOL’s efforts in the first year-plus of the Trump administration to reverse, delay, or reconsider Obama-era rules to expand time-and-a-half overtime pay to millions of Americans, ensure retirement savers don’t receive conflicted advice, and require businesses to electronically report workplace injuries and deaths.

The business community, including many of the same people participating in the “Cut the Red Tape” session, criticized the Obama regulatory agenda at the DOL in particular for imposing burdens that they said would force them to trim jobs.

One person whose name showed up on the list, Littler Mendelson principal Tammy McCutchen, said the exclusion of worker advocates that day conformed with standard protocol.

“DOL’s long practice is to hold separate stakeholder meetings with employee advocates versus business representatives,” McCutchen, who was administrator of the DOL’s Wage and Hour Division in the George W. Bush presidency, told Bloomberg Law in an email. “It is not fair for worker advocates to cry foul if they were invited and did not attend or if they have not requested meetings of their own.”

Parsing the Guest Lists

The trade groups scheduled to attend last fall reflected an array of industries that are invested in DOL workplace safety rules implemented by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. This includes government affairs officials from the National Association of Chemical Distributors; American Iron and Steel Institute; National Association of Home Builders; American Petroleum Institute; and the Plastics Industry Association.

The Associated Builders and Contractors, a chief opponent of the previous administration’s labor regulations, sent a few officials to the summit as well. “Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) finds meetings and listening sessions with federal agencies on regulatory reform efforts to be both valuable and informative,” ABC said in a statement provided to Bloomberg Law. “The administration is doing what it promised to do to unlock the potential of small business to spur growth and create jobs.”

Among the private lobbying firms on the list were Ulman Public Policy (a leading coalition builder in the effort to defeat the Obama overtime rule), powerhouse shop K&L Gates, and Schumacher Partners International.

The entirely GOP congressional presence included four staffers on the House Education and the Workforce Committee and one Small Business Committee staffer. A spokeswoman for the Workforce Committee’s Democratic office said her team was made aware of this event through outside groups but couldn’t locate a formal invitation.

The Labor Department originally invited members of the press to attend the event, but it then revoked their press access in the final hours during a scheduling scramble in the aftermath of the Oct. 1 Las Vegas shooting.

The DOL told participants at one point during the event that the department wants to “Trust Americans to live their lives” and that “Government should not micromanage.”

Officials also encouraged guests to “identify especially burdensome rules,” “provide alternatives,” and submit public comments that include “analysis of previous rules’ regulatory burdens.”

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