Justin Miller is a writing fellow for The American Prospect. Follow @by_jmiller
The Department of Labor during President Obama’s second term was the epicenter of a domestic policy agenda aimed at helping working families. Shepherding that agenda in the face of entrenched opposition from congressional Republicans and well-funded business groups was Labor Secretary Tom Perez. With muscular wonkery, he and his top labor lieutenants successfully implemented an impressive array of rules and regulations that have come, in part, to define Obama’s legacy.
They implemented executive orders that, by leveraging the federal government’s contracting power, required federal contractors to pay a minimum wage of $10.10 an hour, provide paid sick leave, and disclose past labor law violations. They promulgated a new overtime rule that doubled the salary threshold for eligibility—a powerful tool aimed at lifting pay for millions of moderate-income workers. They created a new standard that required retirement advisors to act in their clients’ best interest and they pushed through workplace safety standards that had languished for decades. Finally, they built out an innovative enforcement strategy that did more with less.
These rules weren’t enacted on a whim by overzealous bureaucrats gunning to douse industry with red tape, as many Republicans would have you believe. Rather, they were the result of many years of study and careful consideration, with input from hundreds of meetings with advocates and business groups.
Not surprisingly, Obama’s top labor alums express pride in the many worker protections they were able to put in place over the past several years. In interviews, however, a number of them expressed deep concern that many of them could be undone by the Trump Administration’s and congressional Republicans’ blitzkrieg against federal regulations and workers’ interests.
For starters, there’s the federal hiring freeze the new president has imposed, and Trump’s executive order directing that for every new rule, federal agencies must identify two rules to eliminate.
“A hiring freeze is a pretty ham-handed way to decide which [government] functions should exist,” Obama’s Deputy Labor Secretary Chris Lu, who is now a senior fellow at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, told the Prospect in an interview. “There’s an irony here in that these are folks that want to run government like a business, and you would never run business with a hiring freeze. It’s a nice sound bite, but it doesn’t actually do anything.”