Briefing Book

A Rundown of Proposed Labor Department Cuts

Less safe workplaces, child labor abroad, and more.

By Sharon Block

Tagged budgetDepartment of Labor

For American workers who voted for President Trump because he ran on a promise to finally stand up for them, the outlines of the FY 2018 budget may come as a rather big shock (or at least one would hope). Although headlines today are focused primarily on the massive cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the State Department, attention should also be paid to those at the Department of Labor (DOL). While anyone who voted for Trump could have anticipated from his climate change denial and nationalistic foreign policy that the EPA and State would be targeted, I am not sure that they would have anticipated that the DOL would be so high up on the budget chopping block.

The budget outline proposes a more than 20 percent cut to programs that benefit exactly those people that the Trump campaign claimed to speak for—people who feel left out of the twenty-first century economy and who want a level playing field to compete for those jobs they need to care for their families and communities. While the budget outline released last night leaves out a lot of detail, here are a few topline conclusions American workers can draw about the future of the DOL:

Worker protection will take a big hit: The few details offered in last night’s outline focus primarily on job training programs. But what is more significant is what wasn’t included in last night’s budget outline—any discussion of how the Trump Administration will fund the worker protection agencies. The DOL budget is slated for a $2.5 billion cut, but only about half a billion of those cuts are clearly spelled out. That means that the DOL agencies not mentioned are going to have to make up for a big portion of the $2 billion difference. When we see the full budget in May, expect to see the gutting of the enforcement programs at the Wage & Hour Division, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Mine Safety and Health Administration, and the Employee Benefits and Security Administration.

ACA repeal 2.0: The populations that will bear the brunt of the job training cuts in the Trump DOL budget will be the same people who will suffer from the cuts in the Republicans’ misguided “replacement” for the Affordable Care Act. Seniors, disadvantaged youth, and the disabled will all see programs benefiting them cut significantly, eliminated, or substantially changed. For example, this budget eliminates the Senior Community Service Employment Program, which provides on the job training for seniors who want to work and contribute to their communities, and threatens to close low-performing Job Corps centers without explaining how students at those centers will continue to be served. Sure, the budget outline purports to “refocus” resources for these workers, but these promises are vague, while the commitment to cuts is specific.

Trade impacts get lip service: The budget outline’s treatment of the Bureau of International Labor Affairs (ILAB) is another example of the Trump Administration saying one thing while doing quite another. It says that it will focus ILAB’s work on “ensuring that U.S. trade agreements are fair for American workers,” but what it actually does is cut key tools that would help us achieve that goal. For instance, by eliminating grants that help build the capacity of foreign labor inspectorates to enforce labor laws and meet international labor standards, it is hard to see how we are going to prevent U.S. workers and employers from having to compete against foreign employers who use exploitative labor practices.

Move to unsafe practices: The sparse details on worker safety provided in the budget outline make clear that it is not going to be a priority at the Trump DOL. Once again, Republicans are taking aim at the Susan Harwood Training Grant program. This program has provided important support for non-profits, employer associations, faith-based groups, unions and labor-management partnerships to find innovative education and training strategies to prevent workplace injuries and illnesses in high-hazard industries. In addition, the budget outline proposes to eliminate ILAB grants that improve safety for vulnerable workers around the world—an important humanitarian goal, but also a necessary one if we are to level the global playing field for American employers who don’t cut corners on safety.

Child labor, really?: The budget outline also proposes to cut ILAB’s grant programs, including the grants that ILAB provides to partners around the world who are educating and training children so they don’t have to work in the most exploitative and dangerous jobs and helping governments find and eradicate these inhumane practices. In 2017, should we really need to beg and plead for resources to support a grant program to end the worst forms of child labor around the world?

Building on apprenticeship progress: To try to conclude on a high note, the one bright spot I can see in the budget outline is the commitment to help states expand apprenticeship programs. The Obama Administration launched the largest increase in apprenticeships in a decade, adding more than 125,000 new apprentice positions between 2014 through 2016. I hope that the Trump Administration will advance this important work by continuing to help states strengthen regional industry partnerships, spur partnerships in fast-growing and high-tech industries, and increase diversity among apprentices.

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Sharon Block is the Executive Director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School. She formerly served as Senior Counselor to Secretary of Labor Tom Perez, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor for Policy, and Member of the National Labor Relations Board. The view expressed here are hers and not those of the Labor and Worklife Program or Harvard Law School.

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