Labor Department could lose almost a third of its funds

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WASHINGTON -With Congress returning to Washington for a month of work after its Memorial Day recess, reports are surfacing that a combination of this year's "sequester" - GOP-ordered spending cuts - and next year's budget-plus-more-sequester could cost the Labor Department up to 30 percent of its money, starting Oct. 1.

The result would be a devastating impact on such programs as job safety and health enforcement, pursuit of employers who don't pay workers their required minimum wages or overtime pay (when they earn it) and efforts to reduce the number of misclassified "independent contractor" workers.

The potential cuts dismay congressional Democrats. They also already draw an implicit veto threat from the Obama administration's Office of Management and Budget. It says it will recommend Obama veto money bills funding government agencies - including DOL - unless and until Congress approves a budget blueprint that junks the House Republicans' slash-and-burn spending plan.

The source of the potential cuts is the GOP-run House Appropriations Committee, the starting place for all money bills. That panel, in turn, is working with a partisan party-line House budget blueprint the ruling Republicans enacted earlier this year. That budget blueprint hacks domestic programs by up to 30 percent, compared to 2012.

The combination of the sequester and the coming cuts would have a "significant and very negative impact" on job training and worker protection programs, Acting Labor Secretary Seth Harris told the panel earlier this year.

"Arbitrary, across-the-board cuts are not the best economic growth or deficit reduction strategy," he added. "We ought to be strengthening investments in those initiatives that create jobs and grow the middle class, while eliminating what we don't need. And this should be achieved in a common-sense, balanced way, so that low-income and middle-class families do not bear the entire burden and the most fortunate Americans pay their fair share.

"Sequestration has serious implications for my department and the people we serve. These reductions will impact our most vulnerable workers just as we are emerging from economic recession...It is impossible for the department to manage cuts of this magnitude without severe impact on our ability to prepare and protect workers.

"This is going to have an immediate and significant impact on our efforts to ensure safe and healthful workplaces, and to ensure that workers get the wages and benefits to which they are entitled," he added.

The Obama administration seeks $571 million for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the year starting Oct. 1, along with $381 million for the Mine Safety and Health Administration, $243 million for wage and hour law enforcement and $14 million to crack down on the misclassification of workers as independent contractors, who are unprotected by labor laws. The figures are all slight increases from pre-sequester levels.

But Harris pointed out that DOL's budget - except for mandatory programs such as jobless benefits aid to states - had been declining "in nominal terms over the past few years," even before the sequester's cuts hit.

"So the impact of these significant cuts in federal support for employment and training are magnified, coming on top of already lower levels of federal workforce funding, as well as reduced State and local efforts as a result of the recent financial crisis and economic recession. At a time when we are just starting to see strong signs of renewed economic growth, this...undermines our progress," he concluded.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., a longtime strong labor ally and top Democrat on the subcommittee that handle's DOL's money bill, says the cuts not only hurt workers and enforcement but reveal the GOP's ideological agenda.

"There seems to be a notion among many in the majority that the Labor Department damages the economy by enforcing labor standards required by law. That is simply not plausible," she said at the same hearing.

"Current rules and enforcement may not be strong enough," she added. "Labor's Wage and Hour Division does the best job they can, but they have less than 1,800 staff to cover the whole country, and there are reports of widespread violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act - violations that tend to cheat the most vulnerable workers.

"But we are still waiting for a coal dust standard to be finalized" by OSHA "and for a new standard addressing the serious health hazards of silica to even be formally proposed. We are also still waiting for final action on modernization of fair labor standards rules for home health workers," DeLauro said. Further cuts, she argues would slow - if not stop - all those projects.

Obama's Office of Management and Budget, discussing the first money bill lawmakers will consider, for military construction, said the entire House GOP budget is ridiculous, or worse. And OMB would recommend Obama veto "any legislation that implements the House Republican Budget framework."

Photo: Chicago rally. Earchiel Johnson/PW

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