At the Atlantic Monthly, Alana Semuels interviews David Weil, who served as administrator of the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division under President Obama, on his time at DOL and the future of labor under Trump.
On Obama’s effect, Weil told Semuels:
Semuels: What specifically changed in the Department of Labor under Obama?
Weil: One of the things Obama did from the beginning was to fight hard to get resources for his enforcement agencies. He came in and the number of investigators in the Wage and Hour Division was barely 700 nationally—and it is responsible for 7.3 million workplaces. He fought hard to get it up to 1,000, and he did that in the first two years, when there was Democratic control of the House and Senate.
On government oversight:
Semuels: Many Republicans, including those in the current administration, say that workers will do better if the government meddles less with business. What’s your take on that?
Weil: There are decades of evidence and some very recent studies in a lot of different areas that show that labor markets are not textbook, freely operating, perfectly competitive mechanisms for resource allocation. There’s an incredibly important role for government to play. It’s not exclusive; it’s not like government can solve all the problems of the labor market. And I don’t believe businesses are evil—businesses create a lot of value and create opportunity for workers. But business behavior has to be bounded by certain social norms about what we regard as acceptable behavior.
On the future:
Semuels: What are some of the ways the Department of Labor could change under President Trump?
Weil: We have to see what the Trump budget looks like—what will they be allocating to the whole range of programs in the Department of Labor? What is the message that’s going to be sent about how serious they are about that?
It is not clear yet what this administration really means to do for the forgotten worker that Trump as a candidate talked endlessly about. Certainly the signal they sent for the first nominee (Andrew Puzder) was: Not much.
Read the full interview at the Atlantic Monthly.
In other news:
Fair Warning: Paul Feldman reports that since Donald Trump’s inauguration in January, OSHA hasn’t issued one, single news release about enforcement actions by federal officials. That’s in stark contrast to months just prior — for example, OSHA issued more than 30 enforcement news releases in November and more than 50 between Dec. 1 and just before the inauguration. Enforcement news releases related to the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division have also disappeared. Feldman writes: “Neither (David) Michaels nor (Jordan) Barab (both OSHA officials under Obama), however, said that they have seen evidence of inspections being halted by OSHA. In addition, an official still at the Labor Department said, ‘We’re definitely still out there doing our cases, doing our litigations. … That stuff is definitely still going on. It’s just being able to tell the world about it that’s the struggle.’”
Austin American-Statesman: Jeremy Schwartz reports on bills introduced in the Texas Legislature aimed at improving housing conditions for migrant farmworkers. The bills call for stricter housing inspections, tough penalties for violators, and greater efforts to uncover unlicensed worker housing. While the proposed bills don’t ask for new funding for inspections, it does ask that the state dedicate any penalties collected back to inspection efforts. Last year, the newspaper published an investigation into farmworker housing, finding that Texas spends “next to nothing” to make sure workers are provided with safe and decent housing. Schwartz writes of the newly proposed legislation: “In 2015, Texas spent less than $2,500 to conduct about 40 inspections of housing facilities provided by growers and labor contractors, most clustered in cotton-growing regions of the Panhandle. As a result, an estimated 9 in 10 Texas migrant farmworkers lack access to licensed housing that meets minimum health and safety standards required by state and federal law.”
Huffington Post: Dave Jamieson and Laura Barron-Lopez report on House Republicans’ vote to roll back an Obama-era workplace injury reporting rule. The rule, issued in December, required employers to maintain accurate records of work-related injuries and illness and gave OSHA up to five years after an injury occurs to cite employers for failing to document such incidents. While the rule didn’t actually institute any new reporting rules — essentially enforcing what’s already on the books — Republican leaders characterized the rule as an OSHA power grab. The effort to withdraw the rule now moves to the Senate. Jamieson and Barron-Lopez write: “It may not sound like a big deal, but lasting and accurate records are crucial to OSHA’s mission: They allow the agency to pinpoint recurring hazards at dangerous employers and industries, and they help officials figure out where to target their limited resources.” In related news, the Senate also just voted to roll back the Obama-era rule requiring those bidding for lucrative federal contracts to disclose recent labor violations.
CNN: In an opinion piece, Jonathan Schleifer, executive director of the Fairness Project, writes that successful state ballot initiatives to raise the minimum wage are under threat by lobbyists and trade associations pushing to repeal the will of voters. For example, Arizona voters approved a proposition to raise the minimum wage to $12 per hour by 2020 and guarantee paid sick leave. However, business interests, such as Chambers of Commerce, are filing a lawsuit to stop the wage hike. Another example: In Washington state, lawyers from the National Federation of Independent Business are suing, claiming that a successful wage hike vote shouldn’t have been on the ballot in the first place. Schleifer writes: “Although these days it seems all eyes are on Washington, D.C., we can’t lose sight of what’s happening to everyday Americans in these states. Powerful forces are attempting to erode our democracy, and that affects real lives.”
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for 15 years.