Trump Taps Fast-Food CEO Puzder as Labor Secretary

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By Ben Penn with reporting by Chris Opfer

Dec. 8 — President-elect Donald Trump Dec. 8 named Andrew Puzder, head of the Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. burger chains, as labor secretary.

Puzder, an economic adviser and surrogate to Trump on the campaign trail, is an outspoken critic of Obama administration labor policies. He represents a stark contrast to outgoing Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, who has advanced regulations aimed at tilting the balance in workers’ favor.

“Andy Puzder has created and boosted the careers of thousands of Americans, and his extensive record fighting for workers makes him the ideal candidate to lead the Department of Labor,” Trump said in a statement announcing the move. “Andy will fight to make American workers safer and more prosperous by enforcing fair occupational safety standards and ensuring workers receive the benefits they deserve, and he will save small businesses from the crushing burdens of unnecessary regulations that are stunting job growth and suppressing wages.”

Puzder’s selection sheds light on the Labor Department's likely direction, as the businessman has a lengthy record of spoken and written remarks on job creation. He has said he opposes the DOL’s rule to expand worker access to overtime pay, indicating how he might direct the agency’s implementation or revision of the regulation. A federal judge temporarily blocked the rule in November.

Puzder is the chief executive officer of CKE Restaurants Inc., parent company of the fast-food brands. The Washington University Law School graduate was a trial attorney in St. Louis before joining CKE in 2000.

Overtime on Chopping Block

President Barack Obama has hailed the overtime rule as a signature piece of his working families agenda.

Puzder, in a May opinion piece, took the opposite view. “Turning highly sought-after entry level management careers into hourly jobs where employees punch a clock and are compensated for time spent rather than time well spent is hardly an improvement on the path from the working class to the middle class,” Puzder wrote.

The portrait of Puzder as a job creator may not mesh with the CEO’s past support for automation at his stores. Puzder has blamed the current U.S. policies on trade, immigration, taxes and overregulation for suppressing workers’ job opportunities and wages.

It remains to be seen whether Trump will embrace the GOP mode of employer conciliation or embody more of the populist, pro-worker message that helped him win the election. Worker advocates and unions, waiting in recent weeks for the labor secretary pick, were quick to attack him for views that they said directly contradict the department's mission to protect employees' welfare (see related story).

The first-time political nominee’s positions could change in office. Still, a Puzder-run DOL would signal a greater likelihood that the department will restore Bush-era principles of easing pathways for employers to create jobs.

CEO’s Wealth Under Attack

Even before his nomination, Puzder was facing criticism that his business track record suggests a major contradiction to the DOL’s mission.

“Puzder is a perfect example of the type of person who should not be wielding significant power in federal government because it’s pretty clear that he has a mind-set that is based off of his years getting extremely wealthy rather than a dedication to the public interest,” Jeff Hauser, executive director of the Revolving Door Project at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, told Bloomberg BNA.

“It’s particularly ironic because the Department of Labor was literally constructed to be the voice within the executive branch on behalf of working people,” said Hauser, a former AFL-CIO spokesman who now oversees a project that scrutinizes whether administration appointments serve the public interest.

Fast-food worker organizers, led by the union-backed Fight for $15, discussed Puzder during their November conference call.

“He’s against unions. He’s against the Affordable Care Act,” Kendall Fells, the Fight for $15 organizing director, said in response to a question. “I think the DOL under Puzder wouldn’t benefit the 64 million workers who make less than $15 per hour. He would benefit the rich.”

Puzder as Job Creator

The Trump administration narrative on Puzder’s background is expected to focus on how he guided the revival of the Hardee’s brand and boosted workers’ economic status.

“He has done what Secretary Perez has talked about people doing, but Andy’s done it,” Michael Lotito, a management attorney with Littler Mendelson PC in San Francisco, told Bloomberg BNA. “He saved Hardee’s when it was about to go out of business. He saved an enormous amount of jobs as a result of that.”

“Many of the people who were in leadership positions in his company today started out as crew members,” said Lotito, who is also labor counsel for the International Franchise Association, where Puzder is a board member.

Puzder’s leap from the private sector to the Cabinet would be welcomed by industry trade associations eager to have a greater voice in the executive branch.

Ethical Hurdles

The CEO’s path to confirmation is complicated by possible conflicts of interest related to DOL enforcement actions taken against the restaurants he operates.

He would inherit an agency that can investigate his franchised and company-owned stores for violations of wage-and-hour, occupational safety and other laws.

“Part of the process for nominees to Cabinet positions is meeting as early as possible with the Office of Government Ethics and working out what might be a necessary ethics agreement to avoid conflicts based on a nominee’s private sector background,” Robert Walker, a former chief counsel and staff director of House and Senate ethics committees, told Bloomberg BNA Dec. 2.

“Part of that ethics process here is almost certainly going to be that he will have to recuse himself from these ongoing Hardee’s/Carl’s Jr.-related matters,” said Walker, who now represents corporations and individuals as counsel at Wiley Rein LLP in Washington.

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

Copyright © 2016 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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