Economy|Eugene Scalia Confirmed by Senate as Labor Secretary
The Senate on Thursday confirmed Eugene Scalia, a longtime lawyer representing corporations, to be labor secretary.
Mr. Scalia was chosen by President Trump in July, days after Mr. Trump’s first labor secretary, R. Alexander Acosta, announced that he would resign. He is a son of the Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, who died in 2016.
The nomination was approved on a 53-to-44 vote along party lines.
Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, chairman of the committee that presided over Mr. Scalia’s confirmation, summed up the Republican viewpoint. “Eugene Scalia is well qualified to lead the Department of Labor with a steady hand at a time when workers’ wages are up and unemployment is near record lows,” he said in a statement.
But Democrats and labor groups questioned whether Mr. Scalia’s background was consistent with the interests of American workers.
“Mr. Scalia’s nomination is a slap to the face of labor because Mr. Scalia’s life’s work has been utterly opposed to the mission of the agency to which he’s nominated,” Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, said Thursday on the Senate floor.
Mr. Scalia, 56, has spent much of his career at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, a prominent corporate law firm, where perhaps his best-known client was SeaWorld. He helped represent the company after a killer whale attacked and killed a trainer in 2010 and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration determined that SeaWorld should have taken additional steps to protect its workers.
Mr. Scalia and his team argued unsuccessfully in federal appeals court that the company had sufficient training and safety measures and that it was up to its trainers to manage the remaining risks they faced on the job.
Mr. Scalia also took a leading role opposing a Clinton administration regulation known as the “ergonomics rule,” which was intended to protect workers against repetitive stress injuries. He dismissed the basis for the rule as “unreliable science” and contended that labor unions had promoted it in order to “force companies to give more rest periods, slow the pace of work and then hire more workers (read: dues-paying members).”
Democrats blocked Mr. Scalia’s nomination to serve as the Labor Department’s top lawyer in 2001 largely as a result of his efforts to oppose the rule. George W. Bush eventually installed him at the department through a recess appointment, but he served for only about a year before returning to private practice.
Mr. Scalia also represented Walmart in a fight against a Maryland law that would have required it to spend more on health care and Boeing in a case involving a union that accused it of violating labor law.
He helped represent a coalition of financial services industry groups that sued to block an Obama administration rule requiring brokers to act in their clients’ best interest when advising them on retirement accounts.
During his Senate confirmation hearing this month, Mr. Scalia acknowledged his long track record representing corporations but argued that he was working diligently on behalf of his clients rather than to advance his own views. He said he was capable of working just as hard on behalf of American workers, citing the issue of ergonomics, on which he said he worked closely with the Labor Department’s career staff during his tenure there.
“The lawyer who had the lead on the issue of ergonomics wrote a letter, joined a letter from former career officials supporting my nomination,” Mr. Scalia said.
In the letter, 13 former Labor Department officials wrote that Mr. Scalia “was very supportive of enforcement litigation to vindicate the rights of workers.”
Democrats also questioned Mr. Scalia at his confirmation hearing over his views on gay rights, citing a college newspaper column in which he wrote that parenting by a lesbian couple should not be treated “as equally acceptable or desirable as the traditional family life.”
Mr. Scalia implied that his views on the subject had changed in the nearly 35 years since he wrote the column. “I would not write those words today, in part because I now have friends and colleagues to whom they would cause pain,” he said.
The vacancy at the Labor Department arose after Mr. Acosta faced new questions about his role a decade ago as a federal prosecutor in Florida — specifically, a plea deal reached with the financier Jeffrey Epstein in a sex-crimes case.
The White House and employer groups had at times grown impatient with the pace at which Mr. Acosta advanced largely pro-business changes to regulations. But many of the department’s leading initiatives were either completed or close to being finalized before Mr. Scalia’s confirmation.
That includes a modest expansion in the ranks of those eligible for overtime pay after a federal judge struck down the more ambitious expansion the Obama administration had planned. The department has also put forward a rule making it harder to hold companies liable for employment law violations committed by their contractors or franchisees.
Businesses had been eager to see these measures completed so that a congressional review period would end before elections that could produce a Democratic Congress and president.
Mr. Scalia will help complete some of the department’s remaining regulatory initiatives. But his top priority as labor secretary may be to defend newly finalized rules against likely legal challenges from worker groups.