US House Republicans grill Biden labor nominee on gig economy, child labor

  • Lawmakers question labor dept. action on child labor violations
  • Labor secretary nominee says agency probes shed light on issue
  • Republicans also criticized independent contractor rule

(Reuters) – Acting U.S. Labor Secretary Julie Su, whose nomination for the permanent job has stalled, pushed back on Wednesday against Republican lawmakers’ pointed attacks on a slew of issues including her agency’s response to reports of rampant child labor violations involving young migrants.

Su testified for nearly four hours at a U.S. House of Representatives hearing convened to dig into a White House proposal that would raise the U.S. Department of Labor’s budget by $1.5 billion.

But the Republican-led House Committee on Education and the Workforce focused less on the spending plan and more on an array of policy issues that have been raised by opponents of her pending nomination.

Several Republicans suggested that the Department of Labor was not doing enough to address a reported surge in companies employing children, particularly migrants, in dangerous jobs, which Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana called “the biggest humanitarian crisis in American history.”

Su said the department was working with an inter-agency task force created by the White House to address the issue. She also said her agency’s investigations, including one involving a sanitation company, had helped shed light on the problem.

Democratic President Joe Biden nominated Su, a deputy secretary at the Department of Labor, to become labor secretary in February. Su previously served as California’s labor secretary.

She was tapped to replace Marty Walsh, who left the post in March to become head of the National Hockey League players’ union. Su became acting secretary when Walsh stepped down.

Su’s nomination has stalled in the U.S. Senate, where Democrats hold a one-seat majority but moderates in the party have said they will vote against her.

The key issue holding up her nomination has been a pending labor department proposal that would make it more difficult to classify “gig workers” and many others as independent contractors, who have fewer legal protections than employees and can be up to 30% cheaper.

At Wednesday’s hearing, Republicans on the House panel said they were concerned that the rule was comparable to a California law opposed by business groups, AB5, that has restricted the use of independent contractors.

Su said federal and California wage laws are distinct, and that federal law would not allow the department to adopt the standard established by AB5 unless it is amended by Congress. She demurred multiple times when asked if she supported the passage of AB5.

Democrats at the hearing defended Su’s record and said the Senate should confirm her as labor secretary. Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia, the top Democrat on the committee, accused Republicans of “pounding on the table” to distract from their lack of substantive criticisms of Su.

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Dan Wiessner (@danwiessner) reports on labor and employment and immigration law, including litigation and policy making. He can be reached at