Under Perez, Labor Department produces a blizzard of new rules

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Newly installed Labor Secretary Thomas Perez is presiding over a burst of rule-making unseen at the agency for years.

Perez, in his first three months on the job, has overseen new rules on wages, hiring and chemical exposure, some of which had been bogged down by years of delay.

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In an interview with The Hill, Perez promised he was finding the proper balance.

“The choice between job creation and job safety is a false choice. I categorically reject it,” he said. “We can ensure that workers are safe without undermining an employer’s ability to grow.”

Perez said the department intends on moving regulations forward in a manner that is “careful, thorough and inclusive,” casting a wide net in its solicitation of feedback as rules are developed.

He pointed to a pair of regulations, finalized last month, that set benchmarks for the number of veterans and disabled people government contractors should hire. 

Beginning in March, contractors will have a goal of making sure that 7 percent of their hires are people with disabilities. The standard for veterans will be 8 percent but could fluctuate depending on the numbers of veterans in the workforce at a given time.

While failure to meet the benchmarks wouldn’t lead to fines or penalties, some conservative groups and lawmakers have assailed the regulations as setting de facto hiring quotas.

But the rules have drawn praise from Republicans who said Labor’s measured approach would improve employment among veterans and the disabled — groups with high jobless rates — while also taking concerns from business groups into consideration.

“The Labor Department’s rule-making process should be a model for how government can work with stakeholders in crafting regulations that are practical and effective,” former Homeland Security Secretary and GOP Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge wrote in an op-ed published this month in The Wall Street Journal.

Perez took the Labor Department’s helm in late July, when 10 rules drafted by the agency sat frozen at the small but influential Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), which serves within the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) as the gatekeeper for major rules flowing from federal agencies.

In the months since, the backlog has been substantially reduced, with the office signing off on regulations limiting construction workers’ exposure to silica dust and extending minimum wage rights to home healthcare workers, in addition to the hiring rules.

“I think governmentwide, there has been an increase in regulation, but specifically with the Department of Labor I think there has been a move to be more aggressive generally, and particularly with OSHA,” said Joe Trauger, the vice president for human resources policy at the National Association of Manufacturers.

Peg Seminario, director of occupational safety at the AFL-CIO, chalks up the change to the White House, not Perez, who she said is just as committed to strengthening worker protections as his predecessor at Labor, Hilda Solis.

“What has changed is OMB and OIRA,” Seminario said. “I think what this represents is Howard Shelanski coming in and making a determination that they’re going to do their job.”

Shelanski, a lawyer and economist, was recently confirmed as the administration’s regulatory czar after OIRA had been without an administrator for almost a year.

Seminario and other groups have criticized the administration for failing to move more quickly to implement regulations on the federal rule-making agenda.

The silica rule, for instance, had been in the works for decades and sat at OIRA for more than two years before it was unveiled to great fanfare in late August. The administration estimates that the rule would save hundreds of lives every year through new standards limiting exposure to the dust, which is present at construction sites and shipyards.

But on Friday, the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced it was extending the rule’s public comment period by 47 days.

“Silica has been studied for years and years,” Perez said. “And we are now going to hear from more and more people, as we have our public and formal comment process.”

The decision followed appeals from the Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy and House Small Business Committee Chairman Sam Graves (R-Mo.), who said companies need more time to review and weigh in on the forthcoming regulations.

Trauger, of the manufacturers group, argued the silica standard is based on obsolete information and should be re-evaluated. 

“It’s concerning that we’re using old data and questionable data as far as forming the basis for the need for the rule and sort of ignoring the work that’s been done by industry already,” he said.

Proponents of the rule, meanwhile, say business groups are simply trying to drag out the process.

“It’s delay for the purpose of delay,” Seminario said.

Asked about such criticisms a day earlier, Perez insisted the administration was serious about finalizing the pending regulations.

“The president is well aware that these regulations provide critical protections,” he said.

Perez rattled off the list of regulatory actions taken thus far on his watch, including the new hiring standards, progress on silica and a separate coal dust rule, and the issuance of a final rule guaranteeing minimum wage and overtime pay benefits to some 2 million domestic care workers.

“That’s 90 days on the job, and I think pretty good progress,” he said, maintaining that many business owners see strengthened regulations as a way to protect their employees without fear of being undercut by less conscientious competitors. 

“If we’re not there to protect them, then it’s a race to the bottom.”

 

Julian Hattem contributed.