August 18, 2017

President Donald J. Trump’s deregulatory bent inspired cautious optimism among employers, but employment attorneys say change has been slow in coming at the U.S. Department of Labor, which still has key political positions unfilled seven months after the president's inauguration.

With no second-in-command to Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta — who was himself belatedly seated — and few political appointees setting the agendas for important subagencies including the Wage and Hour Division and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the DOL’s enforcement-heavy approach that started under the Obama administration remains largely in effect, the attorneys say.

The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Partnership for Public Service tracked 587 key political appointments across the cabinet agencies and found that only 117 have been filled, so the staffing problem is not unique to the DOL.

The agency is, however, among those most starved for political leadership. Of the 14 DOL positions tracked by the nonpartisan organization, Acosta’s is the only one filled, and the post of deputy labor secretary is the only one with a nominee. In all, 36 of 80 positions listed on the leadership team page of the DOL’s website are vacant, and seven others are being held temporarily by career deputies.

The agency has a competent, well-qualified chief executive in Acosta to set its top-level goals and an experienced career staff to keep things running in the trenches, according to former DOL officials. But much of the work typically done by subagency leadership — advocating for their offices during budget discussions, allocating resources, deciding which violations to prioritize and how to update or replace rules — is languishing, they say.

“Eighty percent of the work at the agency is going to get done, period,” said Michael Hancock of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC, who was a longtime DOL employee and former assistant administrator in the Wage and Hour Division. “But the 20 percent that the political leadership creates and directs, that stuff doesn’t get done in the absence of that leadership.”

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