Trump plan to overhaul labor watchdogs faces opposition

Businesses and advocates for workers are forming a rare alliance against President Donald Trump's proposal to overhaul the way the government investigates workplace discrimination, part of what his critics say is a broader swipe at decades of civil rights protections.

Trump wants to merge the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission with a lesser known agency that also enforces laws on equality in the workplace. The EEOC is an independent agency that investigates discrimination complaints against private businesses. The second agency polices discrimination among federal contractors. The administration contends that combining the two would reduce duplication by offering "one door" for workers to bring discrimination complaints.

Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, the only Latino in Trump's Cabinet, was expected to be asked about the proposal when he appears at a House hearing Wednesday on the agency's budget.

Allies of employers, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, fear the proposal would create something of a super enforcement agency with overwhelming investigatory and punitive powers.

"If you take these two agencies and put them together, the concern is you'd have a perfect storm, a nightmare scenario for employers going forward," said Mickey Silberman, who defends employers and contractors in government investigations for the law firm Jackson Lewis P.C. in Denver.

But workers' rights organizations predict the opposite would happen, viewing Trump's new combined agency as a way to make enforcement so onerous it happens less effectively.

"We'd be going backward in terms of enforcement, which honestly I believe is the intention," said Paula Brantner, an employment lawyer and senior adviser to the Workplace Fairness advocacy group.

Especially sensitive is the political question of whether Acosta, whose parents are Cuban immigrants, will defend a budget that would cut the number of employees in civil rights enforcement offices at his agency.

While dean at the Florida International Law School, Acosta in 2012 staked out a position starkly different than Trump's on immigrants who are in the country illegally. "We need them here. They provide construction jobs. They provide agricultural jobs," said Acosta, who served previously as head of the Justice Department's civil rights division.

The National Women's Law Center's Emily Martin said she hoped that Acosta would continue to stress the importance of civil rights protections for low-wage workers and workers of color, but added, "certainly the budget that he will be defending does not clearly speak to that."

Armed with subpoena power, the EEOC resolved more than 97,000 cases in fiscal year 2016, and took in nearly 92,000 new ones. The budget document says the number of new cases likely will drop slightly. The backlog of unresolved cases also is expected to gradually decline, from more than 73,000 to 60,000 cases in fiscal year 2020.

The second agency, Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, is part of the Labor Department. The budget proposes reducing staff from 571 to 440 employees and merging it with the EEOC, for a saving of just over $17 million.

Like most presidents' budget proposals, Trump's looks headed for the political graveyard as the Republican-controlled Congress gears up to propose its own spending plan. So far, Republicans aren't leaping to support Trump's proposal for merging the agencies.

Advocates for racial, gender and sexual equality say that Trump's budget is rife with examples supporting their suspicions about a reduced government role enforcing civil rights.

The budget would eliminate at least 10 percent of key civil rights enforcement positions across the government, advocates estimate.

In addition to cuts at the Labor Department, Trump has proposed cutting posts at the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights and the Legal Services Corporation, which helped more than 2 million low-income individuals with legal representation last year, advocates said. Additionally, Trump proposes deleting the Environmental Protection Agency's environmental justice program, which addresses environmental and health concerns in minority, low- income and tribal communities. The administration says such concerns will be addressed by other parts of the EPA.

"It's a death by 1,000 cuts of the progress that we've made in this country," said Vanita Gupta, who headed the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division under President Barack Obama. "You have to view these budget proposals against the larger backdrop of a really systematic rollback on civil rights."

The budget presents them all as cost-cutting measures.

Republicans have long assailed the EEOC for inefficiencies, particularly its backlog.

"These are men and women who turned to the federal government for help and got lost in an inefficient bureaucracy," said Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., the chairman of the subcommittee on workforce protections, during a May 23 hearing.