This morning, the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee is holding a confirmation hearing on the nomination of Alex Acosta to be secretary of labor. Acosta’s nomination came after President Trump’s first choice — fast food CEO Andrew Puzder — was forced to withdraw his nomination due to his documented hostility to workers’ rights as well as numerous damning personal allegations, including that he assaulted his ex-wife and failed to pay taxes on the work performed by a longtime housekeeper.
While Acosta’s nomination has not generated the kinds of tabloid-ready headlines that repeatedly dogged Puzder, civil rights advocates remain vigilant — and so must the members of the Senate HELP committee. Under the administration of President George W. Bush, Acosta served as the head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division from 2003-2005. Writing in The Atlantic, Adam Serwer notes that it was during Acosta’s tenure at the Civil Rights Division when subordinates skirted civil service laws and engaged in politicized hiring that did significant damage to the division. A former deputy section chief under Acosta stated bluntly that he “presided over the politicization of the civil rights division.”
In addition to politicizing the work of civil rights enforcement, Acosta — in at least one instance — was dismissive of efforts to guard against voter suppression tactics. In 2004, he wrote a letter to a federal judge — in a case that the Justice Department was not even a party to — arguing that the discriminatory practice of “voter caging” was not prohibited by the Voting Rights Act. This position was subsequently rejected by the court.
It is for these reasons that the ACLU recently joined a letter to the leadership of the HELP committee that was authored by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. The letter raises concerns about Acosta’s nomination, specifically whether he would allow political interference with the career staff in the Labor Department.
The labor secretary must be someone who is committed to safeguarding the well-being of American workers — especially women. Female workers make up half the workforce, comprise the majority of low-wage workers, and are the sole or primary breadwinners in nearly half of our nation’s families. Low-wage workers disproportionately are women of color. They also are especially susceptible to wage theft, a pernicious driver of the gender wage gap.
In addition, LGBT people — particularly LGBT people of color — are disproportionately likely to be living in poverty. Transgender workers continue to experience significant rates of workplace discrimination and harassment. According to a recent survey, 30 percent of trans respondents who had a job in the past year reported being fired, denied a promotion, or experienced some other form of mistreatment related to their gender identity or expression.
The members of the HELP committee must conduct a thorough review of Acosta’s record and strongly question his commitment to the core mission of the Labor Department, including enforcing critical labor laws and civil rights protections for everyone.
The new labor secretary must:
- Commit to vigorously enforce our nation’s labor laws. The Labor Department is responsible for enforcing a wide range of laws that affect workers, especially women. These include the Fair Labor Standards Act, including minimum wage and overtime as well as break time for nursing mothers; the Family and Medical Leave Act, which allows people to leave to care for a new or adopted baby or the serious health condition of oneself or a family member; and the Occupational Safety and Health Act on workplace hazards. In recent years, the Labor Department has issued regulations that bring home health care workers — long excluded from federal labor law protection — under the protection of the FLSA. This vulnerable group, overwhelmingly women of color, deserve a labor secretary who will assure that the regulations are given full effect.
- Understand federal contractors’ nondiscrimination obligations. The Labor Department oversees the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP), which monitors the employment practices of companies that hold contracts with the federal government. Doing business with the government is a privilege and comes with the obligation of being a model employer. Numerous regulations require federal contractors to take aggressive steps to end sex discrimination in pay and work conditions (like sexual harassment), provide paid sick days for employees, and safeguard the rights of LGBT workers.
Senators must ask Acosta how he will ensure, given his disturbing track record at the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, that there is no political interference with OFCCP’s career staff in their work to enforce nondiscrimination requirements for federal contractors. He must also be asked whether he is committed to fully enforcing the prohibitions against sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination by federal contractors that were put into place by a landmark executive order signed by President Obama in 2014. Given the Trump’s administration’s shameful disregard for the well-being of transgender students, this question is no small matter.
- Respect the challenges faced by today’s working women. It is imperative that the labor secretary nominee demonstrate an understanding of the distinct obstacles women face as caregivers and as targets of abuse. A commitment to a vigorous Women’s Bureau — the Labor Department division charged with conducting research about women’s workforce participation, informing women about their rights on the job, and advising employers on how to best fulfill their legal obligations — is essential.
While the ACLU takes no position on cabinet appointees including Mr. Acosta, we will continue to thoroughly analyze track records and shout from the rooftops about what people should expect from our nation’s leaders. LGBT and women workers — indeed every single worker in this country — deserve a labor secretary who is committed to their well-being and will safeguard their protections under the law. Does Mr. Acosta meet those qualifications? Members of the Senate HELP committee have an obligation to find out.