WASHINGTON — Alexander Acosta, Donald Trump’s nominee to be U.S. Labor Secretary, ducked the hard questions in his hearing Wednesday before the Senate Labor committee.
Senator Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., expressed frustration at Acosta’s non-answers to questions about whether or not he would defend rules reducing worker exposure to silica or order investment advisors to workers and their pension funds to put client interests first.
He also avoided Warren’s questions about expanding worker eligibility for overtime pay.
Trump nominated Acosta, 46, a Miami-area law school dean and former GOP National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) member, to run the Department of Labor (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.
Several unions also back Acosta, including the Fire Fighters, the Operating Engineers and the Laborers. They said he was honest and fair during his NLRB service.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said Acosta should receive “serious consideration.”
The Labor Committee’s Democratic senators focused mainly 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 Senator Patty Murray, D-Wash., put it.
“We all work for the president and follow his direction. If we can’t, we resign,” Acosta replied. Committee Republicans alternated between praising Acosta and pushing local issues.
During the hearing, 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 then Acosta refused to guarantee there would be enough funds available to carry out such an assessment.
Trump wants to cut DOL spending by 21 percent.
Acosta 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.
The fund’s 400,000 Teamster retirees “are warehouse workers and truck drivers,” said Senator Al Franken, D.-Minn. “They’re disabled or too old to return to work. They could lose their homes.”
And he also said he has no solution for the expanding red ink at DOL’s Pension Benefits Guaranty Corporation (PBGC), the agency that steps in and takes over when a pension fund goes broke.
“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.”
Acosta 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.
He 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 Senate Labor Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., opposes the overtime pay expansion.
Furthermore, Acosta 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 trade apprenticeship training. Instead, he cited legal internships, for example. “The ideas can come from” businesses and local governments.
He then 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 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.
He 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 Senator Warren the three rules are subject to Trump’s executive order mandating that 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 Senator 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.”