Members of the House Committee on Appropriations on Tuesday asked Labor Secretary Thomas Perez about various Department of Labor plans and initiatives during a hearing to discuss the department's fiscal year 2016 budget request. Under the President's FY 2016 request, the DOL would receive $13.2 billion in discretionary funding. Various committee members asked Perez to explain his priorities, as well as the status of pending activities. 

Although Perez was reluctant to name any one DOL program or regulatory activity as being a priority, he did claim that providing job training and ensuring a "robust enforcement of worker and retiree protection laws" were at the top of his list. The Wage and Hour Division's (WHD) FY 2016 budget justification, for example, indicates the division is requesting an additional $49.6 million over its 2015 budget to enforce alleged labor law violations. A good portion of these funds will go toward the hiring of 300 additional enforcement staff to conduct "directed investigations to increase WHD presence in high risk industries." Many in the employer community believe the DOL will particularly target so-called "fissured" industries, such as franchises and industries that frequently rely on independent contractors. WHD Administrator David Weil has written extensively on this issue. 

In addition, Perez said a total of $1.9 billion would be allocated to worker protection agencies. For example, he testified that the agency has requested $900 million for the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to increase worker safety and strengthen whistleblower protections. 

With respect to OSHA, several lawmakers brought up the agency's developing rule to regulate crystalline silica. Rep. Charles Dent (R-PA) pointed out that OSHA has only a 70 percent compliance rate with the existing silica standard, and asked why the agency is using its resources to develop a new standard that is "technologically and economically infeasible" instead of using those resources to improve the compliance rate. Perez disagreed with the feasibility concerns, saying the agency has been reviewing "voluminous" comments about the proposal and taking them into consideration.  

Another issue that came up time and again during the two-hour hearing was the DOL's response to a recent federal judge ruling that the agency did not have the authority to issue regulations governing the H-2B visa program for temporary non-agricultural workers. After the judge's order, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the DOL suspended the H-2B visa program. Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) asked why the department decided to stop processing H-2B visa applications instead of "returning to a consultative role." Perez responded that last night the agency filed a motion to stay the court's order, and will issue a joint interim final rule by the end of April. 

Perez was less sure of a timeframe for issuing proposed and final regulations governing compensation data collection and the executive order on pay disclosure. 

Other topics addressed, but not discussed in detail, included the DOL's interest in promoting paid leave, issuing a rule revising the definition of "fiduciary" under ERISA, publishing a proposed rule to implement the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces executive order, and the expansion of state misclassification initiatives.  

An archived webcast of the hearing can be found here.