Alexander Acosta, the President’s nominee for Secretary of Labor testified today before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee. If you’re interested, you can watch the entire hearing here, although that would be two and a half hours you will never get back. I’m going to review the parts of the hearing that addressed workplace health and safety, but you can also read the Economic Policy Institute’s quick take here, and the National Employment Policy Center’s statement here for their perspectives on the hearing.
It will come as no surprise to anyone that Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) was OSHA’s knight in shining armor. (Starting at 2:39:40 on the video). Not beating around the bush, Warren asked Acosta “Will you stand up for 150 million workers?” and more specifically, “Will you promise not to weaken the silica rule in any way an not delay future compliance.”
Acosta refused to answer the question directly, responding repeatedly that the President’s Executive Order directed all cabinet secretaries to review all rules within each cabinet agency and determine whether any rules should be revised.
Warren’s response: “Either you’re going to stand up for 150 million American workers — including people who have been poisoned by silica or you’re not!”
Either you’re going to stand up for 150 million American workers — including people who have been poisoned by silica — or you’re not! –Senator Elizabeth Warren
After the third time Acosta attempted to hide under the President’s Executive Order, Warren cut him off, stating “So you want to be Secretary of Labor but you are not able to tell me whether or not high on your list of priorities would be to protect a rule that keeps people from being poisoned, that cause people to die?”
Acosta responded that high on his list of prioritizes to protect the safety of workers “with appropriate rules.” Refusing to give Warren any indication of how he felt about silica, Acosta started to explain to Warren that “There is an entire staff at DOL…” Warren cut him off, saying “Yes there is, and they’ve already looked at this rule and they already have comments on this rule and they have already received comments from the public about this rule. And they strongly support this rule.”
Asked if he would follow the staff’s advice, he responded “If that advice is appropriate, yes….”
So, perfectly clear where he stands on Silica.
Senator Maggie Hassan (D-NH) went after the President’s budget (at 1:22), describing the hardship New Hampshire workers would face if OSHA’s budget was cut. After pointing out that evidence proved that OSHA inspections save lives and money, Hassan noted that OSHA currently has 45% fewer inspector than it had in 1980 when the workforce was about half of today’s. She pointed out that OSHA only has 7 inspectors in New Hampshire to assure the safety and health of the state’s 50,000 employees. She noted that at current funding it would take OSHA 122 years to visit every New Hampshire workplace just once, and asked Acosta if he would commit to maintaining OSHA’s enforcement budget a no less than current levels.
Acosta assured Hassan that he would be “very concerned” in a situation where there are only 7 inspectors because “I think that worker safety is incredibly important.” Warning however, that “something is going to have to give somewhere in the budget,” and noting that his background is in law enforcement, he stated that “I would be very concerned in a situation like you mentioned where the are only 7 inspectors because going from 7 to 6 has a substantial impact.”
Warren and Hassan may have led the defense of OSHA, but the most significant — and upsetting — insight came in an exchange between Kansas Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Acosta. Roberts started (1:26:40) with a somewhat bizarre story from 40 years ago where a seemingly confused OSHA inspector allegedly fined a small business $1000 for a machine that could harm someone’s leg, but it turned out that the machine had been specially designed for a Korean War Veteran who had lost his leg in the war. Well needless to say, the abused small businessman didn’t pay the fine, but multiply that by 1000 and you can imagine what small businesses are facing today!
The point of Roberts’ fable, in case you missed it, is that regulations mean “lost jobs, red tape and paperwork,” especially for small businesses who, according to Roberts, are on the cost side of cost-benefit analysis.
What he wanted to know was Acosta’s overall philosophy of regulation, “on behalf of an awful lot of people out there who feel they’re being ruled and not governed.”
If we are going to create jobs we need to free up small business. And so that would be my big picture on regulation. — Alex Acosta
So what, in fact, is Acosta’s overall philosophy of regulation?
“The President’s Executive Order ordered and I think its important that we eliminate regulations that are not serving a useful purpose because they are impeding small business. Small business is what creates jobs in this country And if we are going to create jobs we need to free up small business. And so that would be my big picture on regulation.”
And so that would be pretty scary.