Once upon a time, a key component of American populism was the demand for stricter controls over big business: in other words, regulation. Today, the country’s purported populist in chief is instead promoting the dubious claim that deregulation is what will benefit the masses. Through executive orders and now with his administration’s budget blueprint, Donald Trump is seeking an unprecedented rollback of workplace, environmental and consumer protections.
There are signs that at least one agency in the Trump Administration may not waiting for the legal changes to take effect before providing relief to business. In the eight weeks since the inauguration, the regulatory arms of the Labor Department appear to have been in a near state of suspended animation, at least in terms of their announced enforcement activity.
Take the case of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Since the inauguration it has not posted a single press release about an enforcement matter on the DOL website. This compares to more than 70 releases — about the filing of cases or the imposition of penalties — posted during the same period last year.
This can’t be explained by delays in a new administration getting up and running. During the comparable time period for the newly installed Obama Administration in 2009, OSHA made more than 30 enforcement announcements.
A similar pattern can be seen at DOL’s Wage and Hour Division, which under the Obama Administration aggressively pursued employers that violated minimum wage, overtime and other provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Since January 20, the WHD has made only one case announcement. By contrast, during the same period last year WHD announced 35 cases in which an employer was being sued or had settled allegations by agreeing to pay back wages and sometimes a monetary penalty. In 2009, right after Obama took office, the WHD announced 14 cases in the same period.
Other parts of the Labor Department are also quiet. The Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, which makes sure government contractors comply with anti-discrimination laws, has not issued a single press release since inauguration day — on enforcement matters or anything else.
Enforcement is handled by career employees of the DOL, whose activities should not be affected by the delays in filling the Labor Secretary’s job, unless their work is being impeded by Trump’s appointed “beachhead” officials now running the department.
There are no indications that the work of DOL agencies has been suspended. Yet the almost complete disappearance of enforcement announcements may indicate that the Trump appointees have been holding up case resolutions or are choosing not to publicize those matters that have been resolved.
In any event, this enforcement lethargy may be a rehearsal for things to come. The Trump budget blueprint calls for a 21 percent reduction in DOL funding, and while the document provides limited details on what would be targeted, a cut of that size is bound to impair enforcement. How many workers who voted for Trump were seeking more dangerous conditions on the job and greater vulnerability to wage theft?
UPDATE: It’s been pointed out to me that despite the absence of OSHA press releases the agency is still posting enforcement actions on its website on this page, which shows numerous cases since Inauguration Day.