New Benefits Agency Head Focuses on Businesses in Early Days

Employee Benefits News examines legal developments that impact the employee benefits and executive compensation employers provide, including federal and state legislation, rules from federal...

By Madison Alder

Assistant Secretary of Labor Preston Rutledge met mostly with businesses and industry groups in his first two months as head of the Employee Benefits Security Administration, according to Rutledge’s schedule, obtained by Bloomberg Law through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The schedule listed meetings between Rutledge and Fidelity Investments, Prudential Financial, Aflac, Charles Schwab, eBay, UPS, United Healthcare Group, Uber, and Lyft, among others. He also had meetings scheduled with business interest groups like the American Benefits Council, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the ERISA Industry Committee--known as ERIC.

Labor wasn’t completely left out of the mix, however. Rutledge and Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta had a meeting scheduled with the president of United Food & Commercial Workers International Union, according to the schedule documents.

Rutledge was tax and benefits counsel to the Senate Finance Committee and top adviser to Committee Chairman Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) before being tapped to lead the EBSA. Rutledge’s business-focused schedule of initial meetings differs from Acosta’s initial meeting schedule, which balanced industry- and labor-related meetings.

The DOL didn’t provide a comment about whether the schedule accurately reflected Rutledge’s goals or what his goals will be going forward.

Small Employer Health Plans Top Agenda

The Labor Department’s proposed rule to expand association health plans was a topic of multiple meetings on Rutledge’s schedule. The meetings about the rule began as early as his first week. The rule would make it easier for small businesses and independent contractors to join health plans.

He met with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who’s been vocal in his support of the association health plan rule. Paul recently told Bloomberg Law that the rule, which was introduced in January, could be finalized before July.

Meetings with the Washington Farm Bureau, UnitedHealth Group, and the IHC Group addressed the proposed rule, the schedule indicates. The three groups also submitted comment letters on the proposed regulation.

Fiduciary Rule Talks

The schedule reflected timely issues such as mandatory sexual harassment training and dealing with a government shutdown, and multiple anticipated conversations were labeled “fiduciary.”

Talks concerning the fiduciary rule increased around the time the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit vacated the Obama-era fiduciary rule, which required benefit plan fiduciaries to act in their clients’ best interest.

Fiduciary rule items included a meeting with a White House staffer a week before the Fifth Circuit ruling and several conversations with a counsel to the DOL solicitor after the ruling.

Lawmaker Chats

Meetings with high-ranking Republican lawmakers were also included in Rutledge’s meeting schedule. In addition to Paul, Rutledge had meetings or phone calls scheduled with Rep. Virginia Foxx (N.C.), Rep. Tim Walberg (Mich.), Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), and Sen. Mike Enzi (Wy.).

All four Republican lawmakers are leaders on labor and employment committees. Foxx is the chair of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, and Walberg is chair of its Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor, and Pensions.

Enzi is a member of the Senate committees on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. Cole is the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies.

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