Labor Secretary talks nominations, safe jobs at Senate hearing

I had one ear tuned this morning to the webcast of Labor Secretary Alex Acosta’s appearance before a subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee on his Department’s FY 2018 budget request. You never know what bumble bee might be in a lawmaker’s bonnet or how they might use their time to gush about Department-funded pet project in their home State. That’s why I tuned in.

Two moments during the hearing were most memorable to me. The first involved Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander (R) who expressed dissatisfaction with the Administration’s slow pace of nominating individuals for top jobs at the Labor Department. That would include nominees to lead OSHA and MSHA.

The Senator remarked:

President Trump is setting some records for not sending up subcabinet nominees for us to consider. Under President Obama, had sent 10 Dept of Labor nominees by now, President Bush had sent 9, President Trump has sent 2.  ….When are we going to get some more nominations for your Department? [43:00]

 Labor Secretary Acosta responded:

I appreciate the question. I am approaching my own 60 day mark as Secretary. I have set as a personal goal to have the vast majority of my sub department leadership identified and in clearance at the 60 day mark. I believe that goal is something that can be reached.

Hmmm….60 days.  If the Secretary is referring to calendar days, his choices are already going through background checks and likely being interviewed. If his count only includes Monday through Friday, he has until the end of July to meet his goal. [For comparison, President Obama nominated MSHA chief Joe Main in early July 2009 and late that month nominated OSHA chief David Michaels, PhD.]

A second memorable moment—not so much memorable as interesting—occurred when the Labor Secretary was reading his prepared remarks. It was an abbreviated version of his longer written testimony and deviated slightly from it. I paid particular attention to his comments about worker safety. I listened for phrases that might have distinguished him from his predecessors.

The following are a few statements from Secretary Acosta’s testimony today and statements from his two immediate predecessors: Hilda Solis and Tom Perez. Can you match the statement with the correct Labor Secretary? (Answers at the end of the post.)

  1. “The Department believes that a vast majority of employers across the nation are responsible actors, fully committed to following worker protection laws.”
  2. “The vast majority of employers want to keep their workers safe.”
  3. “The Department has placed a priority on helping American employers understand and remain in compliance with those laws, but the Department likewise takes very seriously its responsibility to enforce the law.”
  4. “Enforcement must go hand-in-hand with compliance assistance. We will vigorously enforce the law against wrong doers. A good job should also be a safe job.”
  5. “OSHA uses enforcement and compliance assistance activities to ensure that this nation’s employees are able to return home safely from work every day.”

Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) was the only lawmaker who asked questions specifically about worker safety. The exchange went like this:

Manchin:

“…the President’s budget request includes a small cut to OSHA and shifts their focus away from enforcement and inspections. It will cut 26 employees and conduct almost 1,000 fewer inspections. OSHA’s resources are already strained, too many workers are put in danger… Given the danger that so many workers face in workplaces, why do you believe the Department of Labor is shifting OSHA resources away from inspections and don’t you think this might endanger more workers? [01:30:32]

Acosta:

“The OSHA budget does shift approximately $2 million into compliance assistance and that does reflect a belief that some of the programs that are longstanding–the VPP [Voluntary Protection Program] and others–that work with particular companies to foster compliance assistance that may produce, not may, do produce, the evidence shows they produce better safety outcomes. It’s a net of about a $2 million shift.”

Manchin:

“It looks like your shift is away from enforcement and inspections. How would it be safer?”

Acosta:

“Let me just say that when you are talking about a funding request of $543 million, a $2 million shift, with due respect, is pretty much under 1 percent. That is so we can fund the VPP program that has, in fact, been shown to be very successful…”

He explained it this way:

“When I was a United States attorney, I would talk in chambers about prosecuting cases, but preventing wrong doing in the first place is more successful. Isn’t it better to have a traffic light that prevents accidents rather than give people tickets after the accident has occurred?” (56:20)

The Secretary’s stoplight analogy doesn’t work for me. A stoplight is an intervention designed to reduce vehicle crashes. It’s not compliance assistance. It’s a prevention step.

The OSHA equivalent to his traffic light example are safety regulations. The rules developed by the agency to prevent injuries, such as fall protection standards or those governing confined spaces. Instead of making the case for compliance assistance, the Secretary’s traffic light example argues the benefits of regulations. Strange coming from him given his Department’s proposal published the morning of the hearing. It would roll back protections for workers exposed to the carcinogen beryllium.

Whether compliance assistance or traffic lights, actions speak louder than words.

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Answers: 1 (Acosta); 2 (Perez); 3 (Acosta); 4 (Acosta); 5 (Solis)