Labor Dept. Fat Trimming Plan Shrouded in Secrecy

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By Ben Penn

The Labor Department’s budget proposal Feb. 12 may offer a first glimpse at how the agency wants to eliminate waste within its bureaucracy.

DOL leaders have so far kept under wraps how they will fulfill the White House directive for agencies to reorganize and eventually shrink their civilian workforces. This has stakeholders, former agency officials, and the DOL’s internal staff union speculating about what Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta and his team have in mind.

Proposals bandied about in prior decades on ways to consolidate or phase out certain DOL offices are now resurfacing in anticipation of the reform plan’s unveiling on Monday. The DOL and other agencies are slated to include at least some reorganization pitches in their requests for fiscal year 2019 funding. However, an Office of Management and Budget official told reporters Feb. 8 that the initial reform rollouts mark just the start of a larger overhaul process. More comprehensive, challenging proposals are still being worked out, the official said.

The department solicited public input on the reform initiative last fall as part of the notice and comment period on the agency’s broader four-year strategic plan. Yet, the DOL’s draft plan was noticeably silent on how Acosta plans to carry out the Office of Management and Budget initiative to restructure the federal government by reducing the workforce and eliminating unnecessary programs.

At least one major Washington business group wasn’t pleased with the secrecy.

It is “problematic that the DOL’s Draft Strategic Plan does not provide any detail on the proposed reform plan initiatives in the text of the draft,” the National Association of Home Builders wrote in comments submitted on the draft. “Unfortunately, this approach circumvents the ability of interested stakeholders to meaningfully participate.”

‘You Need Staff Out There’

The DOL’s omission of substantive policies in the four-year plan comes as many White House nominations for senior personnel linger in the Senate. Several high-level slots don’t even have nominees yet. It’s not clear whether the shorthanded political staff will lead to a reform proposal Feb. 12 that’s still short on details, at least compared with those of other Cabinet agencies.

The goal of trimming career staff, be it with a scalpel or a sledgehammer, has left some longtime labor officials wondering whether an agency that already shrank considerably during the Ronald Reagan years can achieve its mission with another significant round of personnel cuts.

“If you ask somebody at OMB is it possible to cut staff at agencies, I don’t think anybody will say, ‘No, it’s not possible,’” a former OMB labor branch chief told Bloomberg Law. “But the Department of Labor is, above everything else, a regulatory agency, and if you’re going to enforce your laws and regulations, you need staff out there to ensure people are complying.”

A DOL spokesman referred Bloomberg Law to the OMB. The OMB representative didn’t respond to a request for comment.

“The goal is to create a more efficient and accountable department that works for job seekers, workers, employers and retirees across the U.S.,” the DOL said in an April statement announcing the reform agenda.

Recycling Ideas

Here are some possibilities for what a Trump DOL reform might look like:

  • Several people have discussed the option of booting a few subagencies out of the Labor Department umbrella entirely. This includes moving the Veterans’ Employment and Training Service to the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics to the Commerce Department. There’s also the much discussed and perhaps most controversial move—merging the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs into the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
  • Chris Lu, deputy labor secretary in the Obama administration, told Bloomberg Law to be on the lookout for a proposal to consolidate the Office of Disability Employment Policy under the Employment and Training Administration, as well as punting the Senior Community Service Employment Program over to the Health and Human Services Department.
  • Two less likely possibilities offered by a former agency official: Send the Bureau of International Labor Affairs to the State Department, and give DOL control of the Pensions Benefit Guaranty Corporation.
  • There is chatter that even though congressional appropriators already rejected the OFCCP-EEOC merger last year, the reorganization plan will include calls to eliminate OFCCP district offices. The contractor watchdog office has already offered two rounds of staff buyouts and “early outs.”
  • The Women’s Bureau regional offices could also find themselves on the receiving end of the ax. Early in the George W. Bush administration, the DOL tried to consolidate Women’s Bureau field offices, only to face criticism that prompted the department to abandon the effort. Now that the GOP controls the executive branch once again, the agency may trot that plan back out, a Bush DOL official told Bloomberg Law.
  • The National Council of Field Labor Locals, which represents nearly 8,000 DOL employees away from Washington, recently recommended the department consolidate its labor relations and human resources functions in order to improve coordination between national headquarters and regional offices, NFCLL President Daryl Laurie told Bloomberg Law. But beyond that, Laurie said his members haven’t been especially concerned thus far, and will wait to see the details before sounding the alarm.

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