By Mark Gruenberg, PAI Staff Writer
At the end of the March 22 session, only Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., frustrated at Acosta’s non-answers about if he would defend rules reducing worker exposure to silica, ordering investment advisors to workers and their pension funds to put client interests first, and expanding worker eligibility for overtime pay, sounded like she’d definitely vote against him.
Trump nominated Acosta, 46, a Miami-area law school dean and former GOP National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) member, to run the DOL after his first pick, fast food magnate Andrew Puzder, flopped. Unions unanimously opposed Puzder, as did other groups, due to his right wing views, questions about his business practices and sexist ads for his restaurants.
Business interests and right wingers backed Puzder and also back Acosta, as do 17 GOP governors, including Wisconsin’s union-smashing Scott Walker.
But so do the Fire Fighters, the Operating Engineers and the Laborers, who called Acosta honest and fair during his NLRB service. After the hearing, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said Acosta “raised serious questions and doubts” about if he would fight for workers.
Committee Republicans alternated between praising Acosta and pushing local issues. Democratic senators focused on whether Acosta would “stand up to the tremendous political pressure” from Trump and the GOP to weaken Labor Department rules and worker rights, as top panel Democrat Patty Murray, D-Wash., put it.
“We all work for the president and follow his direction. If we can’t, we resign,” Acosta replied. On other points, Acosta:
• Pledged to ask the Labor Department’s Women’s Bureau to assess the issue of equal pay for equal work. Studies show the median wage for working women is approximately 80 percent of the median for white males. But when Murray pushed Acosta to promise he wouldn’t cut the agency’s funds, so that the Bureau could carry that out, Acosta hedged. Trump wants to cut DOL spending by 21 percent in the year starting Oct. 1.
“I do have a box” -- the White House -- he said. “That’s what worries me,” she replied.
• Said he lacks a solution right now for private pension funds heading for insolvency within the decade, notably the Teamsters Central and Southern States Fund. And he has no solution for the expanding red ink at DOL’s Pension Benefits Guaranty Corp., the agency that steps in and takes over when a pension fund goes broke.
The fund’s 400,000 Teamster retirees “are warehouse workers and truck drivers,” said Sen. Al Franken, DFL-Minn., who raised the issue. “They’re disabled or too old to return to work. They could lose their homes.” “I have not seen or proposed plans for either Central States or the PBGC,” Acosta replied. “I get it. But these two” combined – Central States and PBGC – “have a $60 billion price tag. And if you include city and state pension funds, the price tag is $2 trillion. If I could come up with a solution right on the spot, I would.”
• Said one problem with the Labor Department’s overtime eligibility rule, now tied up in court by business lawsuits, is “it hasn’t been updated since 2004, and that’s too long.” And to double the salary cap – the maximum yearly pay that automatically qualifies a worker for overtime pay – to $47,476 yearly, as the Obama DOL planned, “puts stress on” the economy. Acosta said he saw one study showing that if overtime pay eligibility had kept up with inflation since 2004, the cap would be $32,000, implying, but not stating, he could support that.
• Questioned whether the Labor Secretary “has the authority” to rewrite eligibility requirements for overtime pay. Those rules say which workers are exempt, as supervisors. That rewrite, also tied up in court, is one reason that Senate Labor Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., reiterated his opposition to the overtime pay expansion.
• Repeatedly pushed job training programs through public-private partnerships, with local community colleges tailoring the training to corporate needs. Acosta also advocated more apprenticeships, but did not mention building trades apprenticeship training. Instead, he cited legal internships, for example. “The ideas can come from” businesses and local governments.
• Said cutting the DOL budget would require a look at all agency programs with the view that what works in one state might not work in another. Acosta ducked a question about cutting whole agencies, along with a Murray question about lack of wage and hour enforcement officers. “Some Job Corps centers work well; others don’t” and can be replaced by alternative training, Acosta said, as an example, while not being specific.
• Did not defend Labor Department rules, including the silica exposure rule, the overtime pay rule and the rule governing the investment advisors, called the fiduciary rule. Right wing Republicans, especially in the House, hate the overtime pay rule and the fiduciary rule. Acosta repeatedly told Warren the three rules are subject to Trump’s executive order mandating DOL -- and other agencies, too – review all recent rules. Acosta later conceded he would enforce the silica rule, even despite court suits, “to the extent it’s enforceable.”
His non-responses irked Warren. “There are 150 million Americans who are interested in these questions,” she declared. “If you can’t give me answers to them, I don’t have confidence you can do the job.” ###
Press Associates, Inc. (PAI) – 3/24/2017