President Donald Trump has already rolled back or stalled regulations meant to protect workers from wage theft, harassment, on-the-job injuries, greedy financial advisors and cancer-causing dust.
And that’s all without a new secretary of labor.
Trump won with a campaign to help American workers, something the executive order on H-1B visas issued yesterday intends to do, though it doesn’t include any concrete changes to visa programs. His campaign also promised to boost businesses and slash regulations, which can come at the expense of American workers.
Business groups have wish lists for more sweeping changes they’d like. But with Trump’s nominee, R. Alexander Acosta, still waiting for Senate approval, the agency in charge of worker protections is in limbo and it’s unclear how everything will play out.
Here’s what we’ve already seen or may see soon:
Taking it easy on companies with a history of mistreating workers
Trump and Republicans in Congress did away with an Obama regulation that required federal contractors to disclose labor violations, from cheating workers on their paychecks to causing worker deaths and dismemberment. It was aimed at pressuring contractors to improve their practices and preventing the worst offenders from getting government money. It also had provisions to protect women in the workplace by keeping companies from forcing sexual harassment claims into secret arbitration proceedings. Trump also axed a requirement for businesses to keep injury logs for five years, which could make it harder to hold employers accountable for dangerous conditions.
Keeping rules to protect workers from going into effect
The Trump administration has delayed the implementation of several Obama-era rules, including one to limit workers’ exposure to cancer-causing silica dust and another protecting construction and shipyard workers from lung disease caused by beryllium. Trump also delayed and asked for a reevaluation of a rule intended to help workers save for retirement. The “fiduciary rule” requires financial advisors to act in the customer’s best interest. Along those lines, Trump also just repealed a rule making it easier for workers who don’t have employer retirement accounts to use government-sponsored ones. As for the delays, industry groups aren’t satisfied — they want even longer ones.
Potentially gutting worker training programs
Trump’s initial budget proposed a 21 percent cut to the labor department, including slashing key job training programs. It remains to be seen what Congress will do and how the enforcement divisions will be affected. The Heritage Foundation even recommended eliminating the agency that monitors discrimination among government contractors.
Taking the sting out of enforcement
Labor officials could emphasize voluntary compliance over aggressive enforcement targeting specific industries. They could demand smaller amounts of backpay and damages to settle government investigations. They could undo stricter standards for holding businesses accountable for the violations of subcontractors or franchisees. They could also re-start the practice, abandoned under Obama, of providing “opinion letters” to employers upon request. The companies can then use the letters in their legal defense when accused of wage and overtime violations, even if a court later decides the department’s opinion was wrong.
Focusing on smaller potatoes
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the government’s workplace discrimination watchdog, may focus more on individual complaints instead of big systemic investigations or envelope-pushing discrimination lawsuits that were popular under Obama. Republicans have lambasted the commission for launching its own strategic investigations while maintaining a large backlog of complaints. Trump’s acting chairwoman said she supports systemic cases but would like to see “a bit of a course correction.” The commission could also start voting down lawsuits that would have gone forward under a Democratic majority, once a Republican majority is installed. The acting chairwoman’s voting record is a good barometer. She’s also opposed a new rule requiring employers to report pay data by race and gender, to help with government investigations of pay disparities. Business groups want that rolled back.
Looming questions: OT pay and immigration enforcement
What will the Trump administration do with Obama’s dramatic expansion of overtime pay? The expansion, which would make millions more workers eligible for overtime, is currently stuck in court, but labor officials could stop defending it, or decide to delay and revise it to cover fewer workers. Senators had a hard time pinning down Acosta on his stance, though he said, “Because of the size of the increase there are serious questions as to whether the Secretary of Labor even has the power to enact this in the first place.” In the meantime, some employers have canceled the raises they planned when Obama rolled out the rule.
And what about the agreement that immigration officials won’t interfere in labor investigations? Some worry that could change with Trump’s crackdown on immigrants. Already, there are reports that undocumented immigrants have become too scared to assist in investigations of workplace abuses.