March 22, 2017 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 0Comment

My favorite line from today’s Senate hearing on the nomination of Alex Acosta to be Labor Secretary came from Senator Elizabeth Warren:

“The test for Secretary of Labor is not: are you better than Andrew Puzder.”

Puzder was Trump’s first pick for the job. He had a long list of problems that made him unfit for the position. So instead of Puzder, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions is considering the nomination of Alex Acosta. The 48-year old is currently dean of the College of Law at Florida International University. He also served as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida and in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice.

Although Senator Warren’s jab was my favorite quote of the day, there were more substantive exchanges between Acosta and Senators. Several of the nominee’s answers had me thinking: “will employees at the Labor Department challenge Alex Acosta to keep his word on that?”

Acosta suggested a few times that he wants to hear the views of the Labor Department’s staff. He said it about the budget, about the number of enforcement personnel, and about regulations. OSHA’s and MSHA’s top staff should be eager to hold him to his word. They should take and make opportunities to tell Acosta what he needs to hear, not want he wants to hear.

Acosta was pressed by Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and Maggie Hassan (D-NH) to comment on the President’s proposed 21% cut to the Labor Department’s budget. Hassan asked specifically about funding for OSHA. She noted:

“…federal OSHA has about 45% fewer inspectors today than it had in 1980 when the workforce was almost half current levels. In New Hampshire, we have only seven OSHA inspectors to oversee safety and health at over 50,000 worksites.”

She asked:

“can you commit that if you are confirmed as secretary you’ll advocate for and seek funding that will maintain OSHA’s enforcement budget at no less than current levels?”

Acosta didn’t answer Hassan’s question directly, but said this:

“I would be very concerned in a situation like you mentioned that there are only 7 inspectors because going from 7 to 6 has a substantial impact.”

“Can I commit to no less than current levels? That’s a very precise statement. Something is going to have to give somewhere in the budget.

The door for DOL staff opened when Acosta added this to his response.

“I would have a lot of concern if the number of inspectors in any one area fell to the point where they could not do their job.”

Opportunity #1: The experiences of MSHA and OSHA inspectors is exactly what Acosta needs to hear. They know precisely what it means when there aren’t enough of them to do the job. Be bold. Tell Acosta why he should be concerned if he cuts even one inspector from the payroll.

Senator Baldwin noted that the proposed 21% reduction in DOL’s budget translates to a cut of $2 billion. She asked:

“How are you going to approach this incredible task to make this math work?”

She wondered whether his approach would be 20% in cuts across the board, or wholesale elimination of certain bureaus or programs.

Acosta responded that as a nominee has not had the opportunity to provide input on the budget, but noted:

“My personal view is that this should not be across the board.”

He used phrases such as “highly successful” and “exceedingly well” to characterize the programs, centers and activities which might be spared from budget cuts.

Opportunity #2: This is no time for inspectors or their managers to be shy or modest. You save lives and Mr. Acosta needs to hear that. You have loads of examples to demonstrate the positive impact of inspections on the safety of front-line workers. Each worksite at which hazards were corrected because of an inspector’s keen eyes demonstrates a program that is working “exceedingly well” and “highly successful.”

At other points during the hearing, the Labor Secretary nominee repeated that good jobs mean safe jobs. On top of that he said:

“My background is a law enforcement background. I think that worker safety is incredibly important. I mentioned it in my opening statement for a reason.”

Opportunity #3:  MSHA and OSHA staff should take him at his word. Embrace your law enforcement role. Present examples of the lawbreaking that goes on everyday in workplaces. Describe how that lawbreaking threatens workers’ lives and health. Use evidence and photos from fatality and other inspections.

The most heated portion of the hearing occurred when Senator Warren grilled Mr. Acosta about OSHA’s 2016 regulation on silica. She asked for his commitment to not weaken the rule and not delay its enforcement “by even a single day.” Acosta said one of his priorities would be to

“protect the safety of workers with appropriate rules.”

Warren was annoyed when Acosta would not say if OSHA’s silica rule fit his “appropriate rule” category. He tried to squirm away by explaining that every cabinet secretary has been directed by the President to put together a group to review existing rules. Acosta said he could not be definitive about OSHA’s silica rule because

“there’s an entire staff at the Department of Labor” looking at these rules…

Warren interrupted with:

“Yes, there is [and entire staff] and they’ve already looked at this [silica] rule. They already have comments on this rule. They have already received comments from the public about this rule, and they strongly support this rule.”

The exchange between Mr. Acosta and Senator Warren ended this way:

Acosta: “I look forward to hearing from the staff their views on [the silica rule.]”

Warren: “And following their advice?”

Acosta: “If that advice is appropriate, yeah.”

Opportunity #4: Whenever the opportunity arrives, be strong in your defense of the silica rule. It is scientifically justified and legally sound. Be bold. Be convincing. Be prepared.

If Mr. Acosta wants the Department of Labor to wiggle away from OSHA’s silica rule or any worker safety protections, make it a chore for him to do so.

 

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