The U.S. Senate voted last week to approve President Trump’s nomination of Eugene Scalia to the role of Secretary of Labor. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because Eugene Scalia is the son of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. He was also Department of Labor (DOL) Solicitor General during the George W. Bush administration.
Republicans welcomed Scalia’s appointment, noting that his previous service in the DOL will allow him to quickly come up to speed in the role of Labor Secretary. Democrats and labor leaders, however, opposed Scalia’s nomination because of his background as a corporate lawyer representing large employers such as Ford, Boeing, UPS and Walmart in legal positions aimed at eroding workers’ rights and protections.
While only Congress can make new laws, cabinet secretaries have substantial leeway when it comes to interpreting and enforcing those laws. As Labor Secretary, Scalia will have authority over laws designed to protect workers from unsafe workplaces and unfair employment practices, among others. Given his history of fighting aggressively for the rights of big business, Scalia can be expected to work hard to undo worker protections put in place under the Obama administration as he strives to advance President Trump’s deregulatory agenda.
As head of the DOL, Scalia will also have authority over the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), which is administered by the DOL’s Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA). However, because he recently represented the US Chamber of Commerce in their successful fight to overturn the Obama-era fiduciary rule, which required financial advisers to make their only concern the best interests of their clients when providing retirement advice, he may be called upon to recuse himself from fiduciary issues. If this happens, those decisions would be shifted to other Trump-appointed officials at the DOL.
For his part, Scalia argued during his confirmation hearing that he also has a record of advocating for workers. He pointed out that during his time as DOL Solicitor General, he fought for a group of poultry workers who were not paid for the time they spent putting on safety gear prior to beginning work. He also said that he believes that labor unions are “among the most effective advocates you will see for workplace safety and health.”
Assurances to the contrary notwithstanding, observers on both sides of the aisle fully expect that Scalia will use the authority of his new role to write regulations that are as employer-friendly as the law allows while limiting the DOL’s enforcement actions whenever possible.