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Labor Secretary’s Calendar Reveals Covid-19 Rulemaking Crunch

Sept. 29, 2021, 9:31 AM

In Marty Walsh‘s early weeks as U.S. labor secretary, he was thrust into White House meetings over a controversial virus workplace-safety regulation and immediately began working to sell the president’s jobs agenda—all while learning a new bureaucracy via virtual staff briefings from his Boston home.

That’s the depiction of the trial-by-fire Walsh endured after he was sworn in atop the U.S. Labor Department on March 23, according to daily calendar entries from late-March through the end of July that the agency posted on its website Tuesday.

On his second full day on the job, Walsh received a briefing about his workplace safety agency’s emergency Covid-19 rulemaking, which was then already a week past President Joe Biden‘s March 15 deadline. At the time, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was developing a rule to compel employers across the economy to take steps to safeguard their employees.

Over the next 11 weeks, the calendar entries show Walsh held at least seven more meetings or check-ins with his department and White House officials—including domestic policy chief Susan Rice—about the virus safety initiative, which bumped up against the Biden administration’s messaging on vaccination progress.

The result of those meetings was a scaled-back emergency standard, released in June, that applied only to the health-care sector. OSHA is now working on another Covid-19 safety rule, to meet Biden’s call for private-sector employers with 100 or more employees to require their workers to be fully vaccinated or tested weekly.

Amid a pandemic in which the vast majority of his workforce continues to telework, the former Boston mayor spent his initial four months splitting time between DOL’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., and his home in Boston; he’d commonly work from the agency’s regional office, logging into Zoom.

Walsh’s public-facing schedule provides a surface-level view into his time in the Biden administration, but the entries don’t contain substantive read-outs on what was discussed in meetings and, in most cases, only offer names, not topics. Some of the more sensitive and potentially revealing calendar items were redacted.

The calendars were released following a Freedom of Information Act request submitted by Bloomberg Law. Walsh’s schedule since Aug. 1 hasn’t been made public.

Gig Economy Focus

The calendar entries do offer a glimpse into some of the labor secretary’s initial priorities as he got up to speed on the department, a process that included regular meetings with DOL officials and frequent calls with union leaders, business executives, and lawmakers.

That included at least six chats about the gig economy—calls that were split among his own staff, labor advocates such as the United Food and Commercial Workers and Gig Workers Rising, and digital platform heavyweights Uber Technologies Inc. and DoorDash Inc.

Those meetings reflect the politically fraught decision pending before the department, about whether to provoke a battle with gig powers by attempting to classify ride-hail and delivery drivers as employees rather than independent contractors.

Others who gained access to Walsh during his first few months were members of the building trades’ board; Service Employees International President Mary Kay Henry; Business Roundtable CEO Josh Bolten; National Women’s Law Center President Fatima Goss Graves; and Senate labor committee Chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.), with whom he held weekly calls.

Walsh’s schedule was also heavy with travel outside of Washington, to cities such as Las Vegas, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Des Moines, Iowa. Many of those stops were designed to promote Biden’s legislative push for trillions of dollars in spending on infrastructure projects, workforce development, and other social spending affecting the labor market, such as home care and child care.

The labor secretary’s cross-agency work was evident in a handful of entries for in-person and virtual conversations with Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, and a trio of talks with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

The first Mayorkas meet was in the days leading up to a joint DOL-DHS decision, in April, to provide employers with an extra 22,000 seasonal guestworker visas—a move that was greeted with bipartisan support in Congress but provoked frustration among unions, who argued the visas were essentially taking away jobs that could’ve gone to their out-of-work members.

The secretaries convened again on June 28 along with then-AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who died in August. Mayorkas and Walsh huddled a third time in July, this time joined by Sean McGarvey, president of North America’s Building Trades Unions, which has criticized the H-2B seasonal worker system. The subject of these meetings wasn’t detailed in the calendar.

Although many of Walsh’s engagements were conducted by phone or Zoom, he did take time during a tour through California to have dinner with Julie Su on July 9, four days before she was confirmed by the Senate as his deputy.

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; Andrew Harris at aharris@bloomberglaw.com

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