How has the Trump administration changed labor protections?

WPA mural depicting laborPhoto/Getty Images
In the run-up to the presidential election, BrandeisNOW asked faculty to provide analysis and insight into some of the most pressing issues facing the country. This is part of the series. Weil is dean of the Heller School for Social Policy and Management and an internationally recognized expert in employment and labor market policy.
One of the cornerstones of U.S. social policy are basic labor protections that provide for a minimum wage, overtime pay and assurance that people will be paid for the work they do.
These laws are fundamental to addressing the inherent imbalances of bargaining power in labor markets. Assuring that workers receive these protections and exercise their rights requires applying these core workplace statutes in changing times through enforcement, outreach, education and regulatory review.
During the Obama administration, I had the honor of leading the Wage and Hour Division, an agency at the U.S. Department of Labor that enforces minimum wage, overtime, child labor and other basic labor protections. During my tenure, we focused in two areas.   
  1. 1. We issued regulations and regulatory guidance to expand protections to more workers.
  3. For example, we extended coverage to two million home care workers for the first time; and we updated overtime rules to assure that millions of workers who had fallen out of coverage would once again receive overtime pay for working long hours.
  5. We also issued critical guidance to clarify that these labor standards still apply in increasingly complicated fissured workplaces – that is, business models that are built on outsourced, subcontracted or franchised work, where a lead business controls what workers do, but attempts to distance itself from the responsibilities that come with employment.  
  1. 2. We increased the number of investigators and took a strategic approach to enforcement to make sure that our limited resources had the largest impact on workers most prone to violations.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration has systematically rolled back progress on both fronts.
The administration revised the overtime rules to reduce the number of workers eligible for overtime pay and modified the definition of an employer in ways that potentially narrow rather than expand protections for workers.
The administration also failed to staff these agencies at levels necessary to assure adequate enforcement and blocked the use of tools that incentivize employers to proactively comply.

In the last month, the administration issued orders across labor agencies to curb public notice of violations of law — even though studies show those notices proactively deter noncompliance.
These steps would have been troubling in normal times, given the rise of economic inequality and eroding labor protections. But the hardships that the COVID-19 pandemic has inflicted on workers — particularly frontline workers who are disproportionately women and people of color — are pushing us even further in the wrong direction.
Many of the Trump administration’s changes are being contested in court and would likely be reversed in a Biden administration. 
A new administration might also be expected to focus on rebuilding agency staffs through increased Congressional appropriations, reinvigorating enforcement efforts, particularly in front line industries of the pandemic, and working with Congress to enact key pieces of his policy priorities (including raising the federal minimum wage).
A second term of the Trump administration would mean further reductions in enforcement and further narrowing the scope of those activities to cover only the most egregious violations of workplace laws. 
Widening income inequality, further expansion of fissured work and a more precarious workplace would likely arise from the continuation of those policies over four more years.

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