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Biden Plans to Nominate California’s Julie Su as DOL Deputy (2)

Jan. 25, 2021, 3:12 PM; Updated: Jan. 25, 2021, 7:48 PM

President Joe Biden plans to nominate California Labor Secretary Julie Su for the No. 2 position at the U.S. Labor Department, after a chorus of progressives had called for her to land the agency’s top job, according to three sources briefed on the process.

Su has accepted the White House’s offer of the deputy secretary post, and an announcement of her formal selection could come as soon as Tuesday, said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

Su has earned high marks among labor leaders and worker advocates over her decades fighting for low-wage and immigrant communities, initially as a civil rights lawyer and for the past 10 years as a state official.

Biden intends to choose her as DOL deputy on the heels of tapping Boston Mayor Marty Walsh to helm the department as labor secretary. Earlier in the selection process, Su had been reluctant to serve as second-in-command, as Asian-American lawmakers and advocacy organizations pressed the Biden transition team to nominate her as secretary instead of Walsh.

Since taking over as head of the California Labor & Workforce Development Agency in 2019, Su has been charged with shepherding a massive state bureaucracy through an unprecedented workforce crisis caused by the pandemic.

Her leadership over the past year is likely to draw scrutiny during the Senate confirmation process. As head of the department that oversees payment of benefits checks to jobless Californians, Su has been criticized for failing to prevent rampant unemployment fraud and lengthy delays in processing of claims—problems that other states also have experienced to varying degrees.

A White House spokeswoman declined to comment when reached by phone Monday. Su declined to comment through a spokesman.

Su’s Strengths, Liabilities

The push among progressives to give Su the Labor Department’s top job included a letter to Biden in December from the National Immigration Law Center and multiple other prominent worker rights organizations.

“She has shown herself to be a visionary and innovative leader who will be able to maximize the impact the Labor Department can have in addressing economic inequality and racial injustice,” the groups said in the letter.

If confirmed by the Senate, Su would be a leading force at a department that Biden is tasking with helping to repair the economy from the pandemic’s devastation while ensuring Americans can safely return to worksites. The Labor Department enforces minimum wage and overtime laws, assists states in distributing jobless benefits, and inspects workplaces to prevent safety hazards.

The deputy secretary traditionally is charged with handling day-to-day operations for the 15,000-employee Cabinet agency, while also implementing the president’s and the secretary’s priorities. Previous DOL deputy secretaries have taken on varying degrees of policy influence, depending on their professional background and the administration’s needs.

Insiders who follow the Labor Department closely said Su’s background as a labor and employment attorney would complement Walsh in framing Biden’s workforce agenda, if both are confirmed. Su’s career has focused on workplace enforcement and litigation, while Walsh, who isn’t a lawyer, is a two-term mayor with experience in running a large city bureaucracy and leading political messaging.

Walsh, a former leader in the building trades, received several key endorsements from influential union presidents, and he also has a personal friendship with Biden that dates back to 2007. Su has been praised by California unions for advancing organized labor’s priorities, such as efforts to combat employer misclassification of workers as independent contractors.

But her oversight of California’s scandal-plagued unemployment benefits system has placed her in the middle of controversy recently. A law enforcement task force found evidence of fraud in the state’s UI agency, with tens of thousands of claims paid to incarcerated Californians.

The California business community also has expressed concerns that Su would bring her state’s liberal labor policies to the national stage, leading to regulatory overreach.

One business group placed a full-page ad last month in the Washington edition of the Wall Street Journal attacking Su’s qualification for a Biden appointment. The ad highlighted California’s unemployment insurance woes and what it framed as the state’s anti-employer labor laws.

Biden on Thursday ordered DOL’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration to determine whether there’s a need for emergency temporary standards to protect workers from on-the-job Covid-19 infection. A handful of state agencies, including the California safety division that’s housed within the department Su leads, already have enacted enforceable Covid-19 protection rules.

(Updated to reflect in 8th paragraph Julie Su declining to comment. )

To contact the reporter on this story: Ben Penn in Washington at bpenn@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: John Lauinger at jlauinger@bloomberglaw.com; Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com; Andrew Harris at aharris@bloomberglaw.com

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