Management Lawyer Joins DOL as First Wage-Hour Political Hire

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By Josh Eidelson (Bloomberg), and Ben Penn (Bloomberg BNA)

Management-side attorney Keith Sonderling has joined the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division as a senior policy adviser, according to an e-mail sent to DOL staff obtained by Bloomberg News.

Sonderling is the first political appointee for the agency, which regulates and enforces minimum wage and overtime rules. Prior to his appointment, he was practicing law as a shareholder in the Gunster Law Firm in West Palm Beach, Fla. His practice focused on defending employers in labor and employment cases, and he also helped defrauded EB-5 immigration investors, according to a bio (since taken down) on the firm’s website.

Sonderling “has extensive litigation experience” with the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act, and discrimination claims, and drove “through Irma” to get from Boca Raton, Fla., to Washington in time to start work, acting WHD Administrator Patricia Davidson said in the Sept. 15 email to staff announcing his arrival.

A DOL spokeswoman confirmed to Bloomberg BNA that Sonderling is working as WHD senior policy adviser.

Slow to Staff Up

The WHD has been operated by career officials since President Donald Trump’s inauguration. The White House recently named a nominee for administrator of the division, South Carolina attorney Cheryl Stanton, but her confirmation could take months to proceed through the Senate.

In the meantime, the agency has already begun the process of addressing new policy directions that stray from the Obama administration, most notably a potential new rule on overtime eligibility.

The department has already sent signals that the WHD will enforce wage-and-hour law more leniently, with an added focus on compliance assistance rather than targeted investigations. But the absence of a politically appointed leader or a single policy adviser has stalled substantial policy decisions on matters such as which industries to target for investigations and whether to respond to more worker complaints, instead of increasing the number of targeted cases at worksites deemed likely to yield violations.

The lack of a WHD political staffer earlier in the year confounded some wage-hour practitioners. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta had already been gradually bringing on political staffers who don’t require Senate confirmation to other subagencies, such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Employment and Training Administration.

Stanton’s nomination comes amid a crowded Senate calendar. The only White House DOL appointee besides Acosta to receive a hearing from the Senate Labor, Health, Education and Pensions panel is deputy labor secretary nominee Patrick Pizzella. The HELP Committee hasn’t voted on whether to advance Pizzella to the Senate floor.

Management Background

Sonderling was appointed in 2012 by Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) to the state’s Fourth District Court of Appeal Judicial Nominating Commission, and later became chair. He is listed as a board member of the Greater Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce.

Sonderling is one of several attorneys the Trump Administration has tapped for positions enforcing labor and employment law who has a background in defending employers.

His recent work at Gunster includes several recent cases in which he represented companies accused of violating the FLSA, according to a review of legal filings on Bloomberg Law.

Over the past year, his FLSA legal work has involved litigating cases for clients such as Maven Property Management, Impro Synergies, and Sushi Yama Japanese Restaurant.

To contact the reporters on this story: Josh Eidelson (Bloomberg) and Ben Penn (Bloomberg BNA) in Washington at jeidelson@bloomberg.net and bpenn@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Chris Opfer (Bloomberg BNA) at copfer@bna.com; Wes Kosova (Bloomberg) at wkasova@bloomberg.net

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