WASHINGTON (AP) — Labor Secretary Alex Acosta, the son of Cuban immigrants and the only Latino in President Donald Trump’s Cabinet, is defending a White House spending plan that would cut the government’s policing of workforce civil rights laws.
Acosta is expected to face questions Wednesday from a House panel considering Congress’ proposal to fund the budget. Democrats said they planned to press him about Trump’s proposal to cut and merge two agencies — without providing additional funding — that police discrimination cases in the workforce.
“This administration is looking at civil rights broadly and dismantling anti-bias offices,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, one of the Democrats on the House panel hearing from Acosta. “You’ve got a whole lot of efforts being made well under the radar.”
The administration has depicted all of the cuts as commonsense ways to reduce redundancy and save taxpayer money as Trump seeks to shrink the federal government.
Trump wants to merge the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission with a lesser known agency that also enforces laws on equality in the workplace. Armed with subpoena power, the EEOC is an independent agency that investigates discrimination complaints against private businesses. The second agency polices discrimination among federal contractors. The administration contends that combining the two would reduce duplication by offering “one door” for workers to bring discrimination complaints.
The proposal has made rare allies of advocates for workers and employers, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who fear it 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.
“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.
The hearing Wednesday highlights the sensitive dynamic of Acosta working for a president who has taken a hard line on immigration, including a campaign proposal to immediately deport millions of people in the country illegally.
Acosta in a 2012 panel discussion took a far different position.
“We need them here. They provide construction jobs. They provide agricultural jobs,” said Acosta, then dean of the Florida International University law school. He previously served 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.”
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 savings of just over $17 million.
Republicans have long assailed the EEOC for inefficiencies, particularly its backlog.
“These are men and women who turned to the federal government for help and got lost in an inefficient bureaucracy,” said Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., the chairman of the subcommittee on workforce protections, during a May 23 hearing.