DOL nominee Acosta should raise concerns for Ohioans
[caption id="attachment_26850" align="alignleft" width="260"] Alexander Acosta. Photo by Eric Drost[/caption]
After the failed nomination of Andrew Puzder for Secretary of Labor, the Trump administration put forward Alexander Acosta, dean of the Florida International University College of Law and former assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division under President George W. Bush. The Senate is scheduled to vote on his nomination on Thursday. Acosta, unlike Puzder, does not appear bent on dismantling the institution he is set to lead, but he still raises concerns. He was involved in allegedly politically motivated hiring and case assignments at the Department of Justice. He also supported voter challenger statutes in Ohio. Lastly, Acosta gave evasive responses on whether he would defend the stalled overtime rule and support a separate rule that requires retirement advisors to act in the best interest of their clients. These positions raise questions about his ability to put the mission of the Department of Labor before his political party allegiance.
The Department of Labor must enforce wage and hour laws without preference for party or creed. Acosta, or any nominee, must demonstrate a commitment to the mission of the agency. This means Acosta must prove himself markedly different from Puzder not just in style but substance. Policy changes that protect millions of working people hang in the balance. The now-stalled update of the federal overtime rule would have helped 351,000 Ohio workers get paid for all the hours they work. During the confirmation hearing Acosta expressed some support for incremental adjustments to rules like the overtime threshold, but also suggested the Department lacks authority to make such a change. This position is grossly out of line with history. The Department of Labor has exercised the authority to set the overtime threshold since 1938 and set it under 10 administrations. The Department of Labor recently increased protections for federal contract workers and required retirement advisors to protect their client’s interest, not their own bottom line. President Trump put this rule on hold. Acosta declined to state an opinion on the rule, offering only that he would follow the executive order.
Acosta’s evasive responses to basic questions around worker advancement and retirement protection raise questions about his ability to execute the mission of the Department of Labor. His early support of voter challenge rules in Ohio raise questions about his ability to put that mission before his political party allegiance. In 2004, Ohio law permitted polling place challengers. Under these rules, the Republican party intended to challenge 23,000 Ohio voters. The Justice Department was not a party in the action or asked to submit an opinion, but then-Assistant Attorney General Acosta chose to submit a letter to the U.S. District Judge hearing the case. Acosta’s letter supported the “challenger” statute and practices, which were ultimately found to be racially discriminatory. The court barred the Republican party from deploying challengers to the polls.
The Department of Labor is often the last line of defense for enforcing wage and hour laws. Since 2015, the DOL found 458 Ohio employers in violation of federal wage and hour protections, as the table below shows. These claims covered more than 8,000 workers and resulted in more than $6.1 million in back pay awards and civil penalties. The violations occurred in low-wage industries like food and janitorial services but also in warehouses, hospitals, nursing care facilities and construction sites. The Department of Labor should protect and advance wage earners across the nation and across industries. The Secretary must demonstrate the ability to put that mission over party politics.
Ohioans value worker rights. The state overwhelmingly voted down laws that sought to restrict collective bargaining and voted in support of a state constitutional amendment that increased and indexed the minimum wage. Despite that, the most common occupations in Ohio pay too little, as is shown in the table below and as is true in many other states. Ohio deserves a Labor Secretary who will work for safe and healthy workplaces, more and better jobs, and a better life for working people. As our Senators prepare to cast a vote, questions remain as to just where Acosta stands.
- Hannah Halbert
Hannah Halbert is a researcher with Policy Matters Ohio