Labor Department wants to staff up worker protection agencies

Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh gives testimony before a Senate committee in July 2021.

Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh gives testimony before a Senate committee in July 2021. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Some of the department's worker protection agencies, like the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, also have a role to play in rolling out the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh told lawmakers.

The Department of Labor says that its staffing levels at worker protection agencies dropped dramatically over the last administration, and it's asking Congress for money to ramp up hiring, as it did last year.

These agencies need to be invested in both to rebuild from decreased staffing levels over years and implement the infrastructure law, the department says.

"The budget invests $2.2 billion in the department's worker protection agencies. This work is more essential now than ever as we rebuild the staffing levels," Secretary Marty Walsh told lawmakers on a House Appropriations subcommittee last week. That request would be $397 million over the amount enacted for fiscal year 2021. 

The Labor Department's worker protection agencies lost approximately 14% of their staff from 2016 to 2020, affecting their ability to do inspections and investigations, according to the department's budget request for fiscal year 2023. 

One office the department wants Congress to help it staff up is the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, which enforces anti-discrimination laws for federal contractors. 

The Biden administration wants almost $39 million more for the agency over the fiscal year 2022 level. Of that, $3.2 million will help it "meet the increased need for its services as a result of the [Bipartisan Infrastructure Law]," passed last fall. 

A goal is to build capacity at OFCCP so that it can "remove systemic barriers that workers in underrepresented communities face to accessing good jobs in construction and other growth industries that the BIL will bolster," Walsh testified.

OSHA is another worker protection agency where the Biden administration is asking for increases as part of a goal set last year by the department to double the number of inspectors by the end of the Biden first term. 

House Appropriations Committee chair, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) said during the year that worker protection agencies have been "underfunded for decades."

"These critical agencies protect against wage theft and worker misclassification, enhance the health and safety of American workers at a time when potential workplace hazards threaten millions of us," she said. "We must do even more to support our workers, the people who keep our nation running."

Ranking member of the appropriations subcommittee that covers the Labor Department, Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), however, expressed "concern " on "the lack of support we're showing for employers" and also cited discontent with "excessive executive overreach" regarding Labor Department goals to increase enforcement in the gig economy space.