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Acosta defends Trump plan to cut number of Labor watchdogs

By on June 7, 2017

In this March 22, 2017, photo, then-Labor secretary-designate Alexander Acosta testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)

WASHINGTON – Labor Secretary Alex Acosta is defending President Donald Trump’s budget proposal to overhaul the way the government investigates workplace discrimination. Trump’s plan for the Labor Department is part of what his critics say is a government-wide swipe at decades of civil rights protections.

Acosta is the only Latino in Trump’s Cabinet and he’s telling a House committee that cutting positions in an office that probes discrimination and combining it with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, would reduce duplication. Civil rights activists point out that Trump proposed no new funding for either agency and contend that the combination would reduce enforcement.

“This commonsense change combines two civil rights agencies that already work together closely,” Acosta said in remarks prepared for Wednesday’s hearing.

Democratic Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut is asking Acosta to provide more detail.

“This administration is looking at civil rights broadly and undercutting these offices and dismantling anti-bias offices,” she said in an interview before the hearing. “You got a whole lot of efforts being made well under the radar.”

The EEOC is an independent agency that investigates discrimination complaints against private businesses. The second agency polices discrimination among federal contractors. The administration says combining them would reduce duplication by offering “one door” for discrimination complaints.

The proposal has made rare allies of advocates for workers groups and employers, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Employers fear the proposal would create something of a super enforcement agency with overwhelming investigatory and punitive powers.

“If you take these two agencies and put them together, the concern is you’d have a perfect storm, a nightmare scenario for employers going forward,” said Mickey Silberman, who defends employers and contractors in government investigations for the law firm Jackson Lewis P.C. in Denver.

But workers’ rights organizations predict the opposite would happen, viewing Trump’s new combined agency as a way to make enforcement so onerous it happens less effectively.

“We’d be going backward in terms of enforcement, which honestly I believe is the intention,” said Paula Brantner, an employment lawyer and senior adviser to the Workplace Fairness advocacy group.

Especially sensitive is the political question of whether Acosta, whose parents are Cuban immigrants, will defend a budget that would cut the number of employees in civil rights enforcement offices at his agency.

While dean at the Florida International Law School, Acosta in 2012 staked out a position starkly different than Trump’s on immigrants who are in the country illegally. “We need them here,” said Acosta, who served previously as head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division.

The National Women’s Law Center’s Emily Martin said she hoped that Acosta would continue to stress the importance of civil rights protections for low-wage workers and workers of color, but added, “certainly the budget that he will be defending does not clearly speak to that.”

Armed with subpoena power, the EEOC resolved more than 97,000 cases in fiscal year 2016, and took in nearly 92,000 new ones. The budget document says the number of new cases likely will drop slightly. The backlog of unresolved cases also is expected to gradually decline, from more than 73,000 to 60,000 cases in fiscal year 2020.

The second agency, Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, is part of the Labor Department. The budget proposes reducing staff from 571 to 440 employees and merging it with the EEOC, for a saving of just over $17 million.

Like most presidents’ budget proposals, Trump’s looks headed for the political graveyard as the Republican-controlled Congress gears up to propose its own spending plan. So far, Republicans aren’t leaping to support Trump’s proposal for merging the agencies.

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