Symposium | Rebuilding Enforcement

Introduction: The Impacts of Eroding Enforcement

By Rebecca Dixon Rajesh D. Nayak

Tagged EducationenvironmentRacismregulationsTrump Administrationworkers

Over the last four years, progressives have looked on with dismay as the Trump Administration eviscerated key regulations that protected clean air and clean water, fair wages and safety and health on the job, and key protections for students and families who are borrowing to advance their education. The list goes on and on, and rightfully, there has been considerable attention on what the next administration needs to do “on day one” to rebuild these core protections.

But too often, left out of this discussion is another, lower-profile way in which important protections have eroded in recent years. The Trump Administration has systematically undermined the enforcement of hard-fought worker, consumer, and environmental protections that remain on the books. As a result, individuals and families across our nation—and too often Black and Brown families in practice—are blocked from working in safe and healthy workplaces, seeking jobs and homes free from discrimination, expecting fair dealing in their financial choices, and enjoying clean air and clean water, with especially dire impacts during the pandemic.

For example, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration conducted fewer inspections in the first three years of the Trump Administration than any three-year period in the last two decades. This year, OSHA has issued three sets of COVID-19-related citations since the pandemic began, out of literally thousands of complaints. OSHA’s disappearance has led to workplaces ranging from meatpacking plants to long-term care facilities becoming COVID-19 hotspots, exacerbating existing disparities for the large numbers of Black and Brown workers (including immigrant workers) in these industries.

The Department of Transportation went further and waived truck driver fatigue rules during the pandemic for any drivers who are “providing direct assistance in support of relief efforts.” This sort of broad waiver is bad for truckers and others who are on the road, having seemingly contributed to at least one high-profile auto tragedy.

Likewise, the Trump Administration undermined the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau’s enforcement, which has dropped by 80 percent from its peak in 2015 before rebounding somewhat. The bureau brought only one action involving lending discrimination in all 2019.

And the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has reversed course on its enforcement of nursing home care standards. The agency reduced civil money penalties collections across the board (from $41,260 to $28,405 on average), and regional offices were given discretion not to impose penalties for even the most serious violations (those involving “immediate jeopardy”).

The list goes on and on. The harsh reality is that the next administration does not have the luxury of focusing solely on regulatory changes, but instead will have to take affirmative steps to rebuild enforcement infrastructure across our government. Much of that working is painstaking and grueling, and recent report from Student Defense explains, it involves a combination of structural, policy, and cultural change.

To be sure, our nation’s structural underinvestment in enforcement predates the Trump Administration, with particular impacts on workers (and Black workers, immigrant workers, and other workers of color in particular), consumers (who had even fewer protections before the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was launched), and the environment (and once again, communities of color in particular). As a result of the limited funding for enforcement, agencies have to pursue strategic efforts to make the greatest impact. The Obama Administration began taking steps forward to increase funding and strengthen enforcement of wage-and-hour laws, consumer and environmental protections, civil rights, and beyond, but those efforts have been stalled (or worse) in recent years.

The next administration will have plenty to do on day one. But its longer-term efforts to rebuild the federal government’s enforcement infrastructure will be vital to making a real difference for workers, consumers, and the environment—and crucially, so will doing so in a way that delivers on a promise to protect communities of color that have long been the most impacted by underenforcement of these protections.

From the Symposium

Rebuilding Enforcement

A future administration will be called upon to undo the damage wrought by the current one to protect workers, consumers, students, the environment, and more.

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Rebecca Dixon is the executive director of the National Employment Law Project (NELP), a national advocacy organization that fights for policies that dismantle structural racism and build worker power. She has previously served in the Office of the Governor of New York’s Labor and Civil Rights Division, and has advocated for workers at the federal, state, and local levels.

Rajesh D. Nayak is a fellow at the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School. Previously, he served as deputy chief of staff, deputy assistant secretary for policy, and senior counsel to the solicitor at the Department of Labor in the Obama Administration.

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