Former U.S. attorney Alexander Acosta was confirmed as labor secretary Thursday, filling a key spot in President Trump’s Cabinet and setting the stage for the administration to tackle pending rules that could have sweeping consequences for workers and retirement savers.
Acosta, 48, will have to move quickly to take action regarding major policies that have been in limbo while the department has been without leadership for the past three months, including a rule that sets limits on the investment advice given to retirement savers and another that expands the number of workers eligible for overtime pay.
During his confirmation hearing last month, Acosta refrained from backing the rules, citing the president’s orders to review and scale back regulations. “We all work for the president and we all will ultimately follow his direction unless we feel like we can’t,” Acosta said at the March 22 hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
A rule finalized by the Labor Department last year would more than double the income threshold that determines which workers should be eligible for overtime pay. Under the rule, anyone earning less than $47,500 a year would be paid time and a half when they work more than 40 a week, up from the current threshold of $23,660 a year.
Acosta hinted during the hearing that he may be open to increasing the income limit, but perhaps at a lower level. He said a steep increase could create “stress” and lead to higher costs for businesses. He has until June 30 to decide whether to drop the Labor Department’s appeal of a lawsuit challenging the rule. A federal judge halted the rule late last year.
Acosta will also have to carry out the president’s request to review — and potentially undo — a rule put in place under the Obama administration that requires brokers working with retirement savers to put their clients’ interests ahead of their own.
The rule, which was supposed to go into effect this month, has been delayed until June 9 to give the department more time to comply with the president’s request. Acosta could decide to revise the regulation or to delay it further, but the department will need to conduct research to justify making major changes to a rule that’s already been finalized, says Erin Sweeney, an attorney at Miller & Chevalier who consults employers and financial firms seeking to comply with the rule.
Business groups are also hoping Acosta will clarify how the department will treat situations in which a worker may have more than one employer, including people who work for a franchisee that is overseen by a parent franchise company.
Acosta was confirmed by the Senate HELP Committee on March 30, with senators voting along party lines.
“American workers are fortunate to now have a Secretary of Labor who understands the importance of a good-paying job and that harmful regulations from Washington have only made it harder to create, find, or keep good jobs,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the committee, said in a statement.
Acosta’s nomination has faced less controversy than Trump’s original pick — the former fast-food executive Andrew Puzder, who faced fierce resistance from labor groups and consumer advocates.
Workers groups have been mixed in their reception of Acosta. A handful of unions, including the International Association of Firefighters and the Laborers’ International Union of North America, have endorsed him.
But some labor groups say they still have concerns about how much Acosta will do to defend workers rights at a time when the Trump administration is seeking to roll back regulations.
“Those of us who watched him at his hearing were left with some concerns about how committed he was” to protecting those policies, said Bill Samuel, director of government affairs at the AFL-CIO, a federation of unions.
Acosta served on the National Labor Relations Board and was the head of the civil rights division at the Justice Department, giving him a deep history in public service and familiarity with labor issues.
Before becoming the dean of the law school at Florida International University, Acosta was the U.S. attorney in South Florida, where he prosecuted Washington GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff. He also cut a deal with wealthy financier Jeffrey Epstein, who was accused of sexually abusing minors, that was later criticized as being too lenient.
After Acosta’s confirmation, Trump’s pick for trade representative, Robert E. Lighthizer, becomes the last Cabinet-level nominee waiting for a vote from the full Senate.