Labor Secretary’s Open-Door Policy Put to Test

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By Ben Penn

Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta’s reputation for keeping the door open to all stakeholders is being tested in his first week on the job.

The secretary and his staff have spent their opening days at the Labor Department reaching out to trade groups and members of Congress on both sides of the aisle as they begin assembling a DOL agenda for the Trump administration.

Advocates for employers or workers contacted by Bloomberg BNA were in different stages of connecting with the secretary. Some said they’ve reached out to Acosta and are waiting to have a meeting scheduled, some were already contacted by his office and others hadn’t requested a sit-down but expected to do so shortly.

Stakeholder engagement traditionally occupies space in any new labor secretary’s calendar. This year, it comes at a particularly critical moment, with Acosta confronting a slew of Obama-era DOL regulations that he’s being urged to either protect, kill or revise. The lack of a labor secretary until April 28—one day shy of President Donald Trump’s 100th day in office—only adds to the sense of urgency.

House Committee Vows to ‘Work Together’

Acosta met May 4 with GOP leadership on the House Education and the Workforce Committee: Chairwoman Virginia Foxx (N.C.) and the chairmen of two subcommittees that oversee DOL policies.

The labor secretary and Foxx “had a very productive conversation about how we can work together to strengthen protections for workers, promote good-paying jobs, and restore fairness and balance to federal labor policies,” Bethany Aronhalt, spokeswoman for committee Republicans, told Bloomberg BNA via email.

Acosta’s office also reached out to the committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Bobby Scott (Va.), with the intention of scheduling a prompt discussion, but nothing was on the books as of May 4, a Scott spokeswoman told Bloomberg BNA. The secretary has also attempted to meet with Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), the ranking member of the House labor appropriations subcommittee.

Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.), who chairs the panel’s Workforce Protections Subcommittee, discussed with Acosta the concept of businesses’ joint employment liability with affiliated employers, among other topics. The DOL has followed the National Labor Relations Board’s lead in applying a more expansive definition of the term when investigating companies for wage and safety violations.

During Acosta’s past government service, including running the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, he was known for engaging with a broad array of outside groups before reaching a decision.

Business Groups Want Change

The secretary also began engaging the heads of some of the business groups that supported him as he went through Senate confirmation.

The chief executive officers of the International Franchise Association and the National Federation of Independent Business are scheduled to talk to Acosta in the coming days. Two representatives for the AFL-CIO told Bloomberg BNA May 4 they weren’t aware of any outreach from the union federation’s President Richard Trumka to the secretary’s office.

The IFA also made a request for a more detailed meeting with Acosta. The franchise group’s priorities include withdrawing the DOL Wage and Hour Division’s recently broadened application of “joint employment” and revising the strategic enforcement approach under the prior administration’s WHD.

“After eight years of the franchise business model being used as a political punching bag by Labor Department officials, it’s refreshing to receive outreach from Secretary Acosta, who shares our goal of matching the available jobs for Americans with the skills available to fill them,” Matthew Haller, a senior vice president at the IFA, told Bloomberg BNA in an email.

The National Restaurant Association is also expecting to meet with Acosta, and it wants to raise the issue of the DOL’s overtime and tip-pool rules—which are both tied up in litigation—joint employment and other topics, Steve Danon, the group’s spokesman, told Bloomberg BNA.

Meanwhile, worker advocacy think tanks the Economic Policy Institute and National Employment Law Project both told Bloomberg BNA that preserving the department’s fiduciary rule is a top priority for an imminent discussion with the secretary.

Critics and supporters of the rule, which aims to reduce the allegedly conflicted investment advice given to retirement savers, have been actively seeking one-on-one meetings with the secretary all week. Portions of the fiduciary rule were delayed until June 9, when they will take effect unless Acosta were to order a further delay.

To contact the reporter on this story: Ben Penn in Washington at bpenn@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com; Christopher Opfer at copfer@bna.com

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