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By Ben Penn
It’s too soon to judge Donald Trump’s Labor Department transition, but the landing team charged with smoothing the process is moving at a more deliberate pace and with less experience than the last time there was a change in the White House, Deputy Labor Secretary Chris Lu told Bloomberg BNA.
“To the extent that there’s a difference, we had former senior officials on our landing teams. These people knew the agencies well,” Lu said in a Jan. 4 interview, comparing the Trump DOL transition to that of President Barack Obama eight years ago. “We also operated under a faster time frame. We instructed our landing teams to be done with their work by the beginning of December,” added Lu, who was executive director of Obama’s transition.
Three people leading the Obama Labor Department landing team—Seth Harris, Ed Montgomery and Michael Kerr—were all senior officials in former President Bill Clinton’s DOL, Lu said. “This was not Department of Labor 101. They were able to go to a different level of depth in their briefings.”
A Trump transition aide, when asked to respond to Lu’s comments said in an e-mail: “If current DOL political staff were not so busy campaigning for DNC chair while on federal payroll, they would be more aware of serious discussions the transition team is having with career employees.”
Outgoing Labor Secretary Thomas Perez has spent his personal time in recent weeks running for the Democratic National Committee chair.
The incoming administration’s landing team arrived shortly before Thanksgiving, completing an initial round of more than 30 meetings Jan. 4. The Trump landing team has been “collegial and collaborative,” said Lu, who is guiding the outgoing department’s hand off but doesn’t take part in the transition meetings.
The president-elect’s DOL transition staffers include a former DOL chief economist and deputy Wage and Hour Division administrator. It’s unclear if they will resume a new round of meetings or if their focus has switched to preparing their labor secretary nominee.
The next administration is expected to try to undo many of the labor initiatives overseen by Lu and Perez, including a regulation to expand overtime access.
Lu, speaking a few weeks before his last day in office, won’t have a say in that process. But he did offer advice to the next administration on how it could fulfill promises to the voters who helped elect Trump.
“If Donald Trump is serious about helping working-class Americans, he would do well to take a look at the policy initiatives that we have pushed over the last eight years to raise wages, help people gain access to better jobs, help protect them in the workplace, eliminate pay disparities, eliminate employment discrimination,” Lu said.
“These are policies that directly help working-class Americans, and for anybody who says, you know what, you can’t have those protections and grow jobs, I think they’re missing the 15 million jobs we created over the last six years,” he added.
A more business-friendly DOL that prioritizes employer outreach over enforcement is a distinct possibility under the leadership of Labor Secretary-designate Andrew Puzder, a fast-food executive. Trump and Puzder have said heavy government regulation stifles business activity and hurts job growth.
Lu, who was Cabinet secretary in Obama’s first term, said there may be less sense of urgency in the current transition because the economy is more stable than when Obama was first elected.
Beyond the timeline and personnel experience, he said the landing teams are operating similarly.
“The job of the landing team ultimately is to get your arms around what is happening at that department at the moment you’re going to take over,” Lu said. “I don’t think what we did in 2008 is significantly different than the approach that’s happening here.”
The Trump transition staff only meets directly with DOL career staff. “That’s deliberate, because I don’t want to chill the conversation,” Lu said.
Lu does get briefed on the meetings. He said the talks thus far have focused on catching up the incoming crew on the agency’s day-to-day functions.
“It’s really been just an overview of what the programs are,” Lu said. “I think it’s really just what are the programs you administer, what are your budget issues, what are the challenges, what are the opportunities. It’s been very straightforward.”
Landing team director Loren Smith, a DOL public affairs assistant in the George W. Bush administration, has been joined by a growing list of transition colleagues as the meetings progress. Earlier appointments included several other veterans of Bush’s DOL: Nathan Mehrens, an attorney at the Office of Labor-Management Standards, and Richard Manning, chief of staff of the agency’s public affairs office.
More recently, the transition staff grew to include Diana Furchtgott-Roth, the DOL’s chief economist from 2003 to 2005, and Eric Dreiband, deputy WHD administrator from 2002 to 2003.
“The team has very experienced people who are very familiar with the operations of the department and how to run a department and an agency more generally,” Paul DeCamp, who was WHD administrator in the Bush administration, told Bloomberg BNA. DeCamp, now a principal at management firm Jackson Lewis in Washington, isn’t involved in the current transition.
Expect to see some of the Trump DOL landing team personnel appointed as agency heads, he said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Ben Penn in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
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