Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Biden’s nominee for Labor secretary can expect tough questions from Republicans

Deputy Labor Secretary Julie Su speaks during a Learn About Worker Experiences event at the Skal restaurant in Brooklynon April 11, 2022, in New York City.  (Roy Rochlin/Getty Images North America/TNS)
By David Lightman Sacramento Bee

WASHINGTON – California’s Julie Su faces a fierce, and likely ugly, battle to win confirmation for U.S. Secretary of Labor.

Chances are good she’ll win the fight, since 51 senators caucus with the Democrats, and Su won Senate confirmation two years ago as deputy secretary.

But Su, who ran the California department that managed the state’s beleaguered unemployment system during the COVID-19 pandemic, faces tough questions. President Joe Biden nominated her last week to replace Marty Walsh, who’s leaving to become executive director of the National Hockey League Players’ Association.

“I really felt that she almost enabled fraud in the unemployment compensation program by suspending all the safeguards,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. Collins, who is considered the Senate’s most moderate Republican, is member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which will consider the Su choice.

Top Republican on that committee is Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La. He wants to examine not only her California record, but her tenure as deputy secretary in the U.S. Labor Department.

“”There have been issues that have not been handled well by her office in particular,” he said.

Democrats are enthusiastic about Su.

“I think she’s eminently qualified,” said committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, Ind.-Vt. “I hope we can get her through quickly and easily.”

Su and the COVID-19 pandemic

Su has been a favorite Republican target for some time.

She was secretary of the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency when the COVID-19 pandemic sent the unemployment rate soaring in the spring of 2020.

Not only was the agency deluged with a sudden avalanche of claims, but it had to manage new federal jobless programs that in some cases allowed people who traditionally did not qualify for benefits to receive them.

While the state was usually able to process claims quickly, it endured complaints about poor customer service and became riddled with fraud. Estimates have been as high as $30 billion lost in fraudulent claims.

Su’s defenders say that she endured the same trouble as her counterparts across the country.

“All the states were under the pressure to get that out ASAP. Otherwise there would be people dying on the streets,” Rep. Judy Chu, D-Monterey Park, told the Bee.

“That’s how serious it was. People were taken care of. We were able to have a fairly quick recovery because those unemployment benefits went out,” said Chu, who chairs Congress’ Asian Pacific Americans Caucus.

Su is backed by a long list of worker advocates. Look at the broader picture, they say, notably her work as a workers’ rights attorney and a champion for those rights as a government official.

“During her time in California, she was particularly strong on enforcement around minimum wage and occupational safety standards, combating wage theft, and arbitrating public sector contract disputes – skills we need at the national level,” said Rebecca Dixon, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, a workers rights group that follows unemployment developments closely.

“She leads with kindness and empathy, building initiatives that inform workers of their rights and staunchly protecting workers who are victims of wage theft and other related crimes,” added Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association.

As deputy secretary of labor since 2021, Su has been the department’s chief operating officer, helping to implement policy in the union-friendly agency.

The department manages employment and unemployment policy, job training programs, wage and hour laws and other labor-oriented matters.

Republicans vs. Su

Republicans and some business interests have not been pleased.

Leading the opposition to Su has been Rep. Kevin Kiley, R-Rocklin. Kiley, elected to Congress in November, was an assemblyman as the unemployment crisis was unfolding.

He’s been a relentless Su critic.

Last month, Kiley and six other California Republican congressmen wrote to Biden urging him not to appoint Su. They charged the “state stood by twiddling its thumbs” while crooks successfully received billions in fraudulent claims.

On Feb. 27, he made a 23-minute House floor speech detailing his case. Kiley, who chairs the House’s subcommittee on workforce protection, noted how, as an assembly member, he was an “eyewitness (to) first hand failures” and that “the amount of suffering Su’s Labor Department inflicted on my constituents and millions of Californians should entirely disqualify Su from consideration.”

Tuesday, the California Business and Industrial Alliance began running a 30-second ad declaring “Su made a mess of California.” It ran Tuesday in the Washington area on CNN and MSNBC and is scheduled to run Wednesday on ABC’s “Good Morning America” and NBC’s “Today” show.

Also troubling Kiley and other Republicans is the Democratic push to put what GOP critics call burdensome new requirements on employers and employees.

Democrats last week renewed their push to win congressional approval of the Protecting the Right to Organize, or PRO, Act, which would make it easier for unions to organize workers.

The Democratic-run House approved the measure in 2021 but it went nowhere in the Senate. With Republicans now running the House, it’s highly unlikely to go anywhere this year or next.

But Kiley and his allies are concerned that the Biden administration wants to make some related changes without congressional approval. The administration is proposing a rule to clarify who is considered an employee.

In general, the difference would be that people running their own business are not employees, but the designation of employee would include those who are “dependent on finding work in the business of another.”

The rule, said Cassidy, “would make it difficult for individuals who wish to keep flexibility in how, when and where they choose to work.” And, he noted, Su “led the implementation” of the California law that he said “removed the flexibility of individuals to work as independent contractors.”

No date has been set for the Su confirmation hearing.