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Trump Hire Aims to ‘Burrow in’ as Biden Taps Employment Head (1)

Jan. 28, 2021, 9:22 PM; Updated: Jan. 29, 2021, 12:34 AM

The Biden administration is installing new leaders at a federal workforce agency critical to pandemic economic recovery, while a Trump appointee who held a senior political role in the same office is attempting to stay on board.

Suzi LeVine, the Washington state Employment Security Department commissioner and former Obama-era ambassador to Switzerland, is slated to join the Labor Department on Monday as interim political head of the Employment and Training Administration, according to five sources briefed on the process. She’ll be joined by a new chief of staff, Ana Hageage, who shares LeVine’s Obama administration pedigree, three sources familiar with the appointment said.

As the new Democratic leaders take the reins of the DOL subagency responsible for assisting states with unemployment benefits, they may soon inherit the Trump administration’s deputy assistant secretary at ETA, Amy Simon. Her bid to switch from a political role to one of ETA’s top career executive positions was approved by the subagency’s former leadership in the prior administration’s final weeks.

Simon’s conversion, a late-term executive branch practice known as “burrowing in,” is pending approval from the federal government’s central HR agency, which has the power to reject her hiring, according to five sources with knowledge of the matter. If Simon is cleared to become a civil servant in the Senior Executive Service, she would be one of LeVine’s top two career deputies.

With an annual budget of roughly $9 billion—about three-quarters of overall DOL appropriations—ETA is poised to wield immense authority in executing President Joe Biden‘s mission to rapidly repair a labor market reeling from the virus-induced surge of layoffs and structural damage. In addition to unemployment insurance, the agency’s portfolio includes structuring the nation’s workforce development system and approving employer requests for immigrant-worker visas.

Simon was hired as ETA’s chief of staff in March 2019 and became deputy assistant secretary in May. She confirmed to Bloomberg Law that she’s vying for the position of career deputy assistant secretary, and her boss prior to Inauguration Day, the Trump-appointed former ETA Assistant Secretary John Pallasch, said he signed off on the conversion.

Pallasch said the Trump administration followed the standard competitive selection process and adhered to federal regulations. The Office of Personnel Management is now reviewing whether that is the case. If approved, Simon would be protected by civil service laws that would make it difficult for Biden to fire her, though she’d be subject to a one-year probationary period. She hasn’t been at the agency since Jan. 20.

Elsewhere in the federal government, eleventh-hour conversions of Trump loyalists have garnered scrutiny. Simon, a former government information technology consultant, hasn’t made headlines for partisan reasons, though her status could present a tricky personnel dynamic for LeVine. Regardless of Simon’s competence and professional qualifications, any new administration would prefer to select its own candidates to fill key career roles.

“I was humbled to be selected for the position at the conclusion of the standard merit competition,” Simon said in a statement. “I welcome any opportunity to continue my public service as a career professional in the Senior Executive Service.”

An OPM spokeswoman declined to comment. DOL media representatives declined comment on LeVine and Simon.

LeVine Takes Helm

LeVine, a Democratic fundraiser who worked closely with the Obama-era ETA on apprenticeship advocacy, was appointed by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) in 2018 to head the state’s employment agency, which processes claims for jobless benefits, oversees job training services, and recently implemented a new paid leave law.

Her new role is temporary, and it wasn’t clear if LeVine has been considered for permanent assistant secretary of ETA, a Senate-confirmed post. Biden has yet to nominate anyone for that role.

Washington’s Employment Security Department announced Jan. 22 that LeVine would step down to join the Biden administration, effective Feb. 1. LeVine later declined to comment, through a spokesperson, on which job she’d be assuming.

Prior to her 2014-2017 tenure as U.S. ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein, LeVine worked in the tech industry as a sales executive at Expedia Inc. and a director of strategic partnerships at Microsoft Corp. She’s also volunteered as deputy national finance chair of the Democratic National Committee.

At ETA, LeVine will be tasked with implementing Biden’s Jan. 22 instructions for the department to consider issuing guidance to clarify that “workers have a federally guaranteed right to refuse employment that will jeopardize their health,” while still qualifying for unemployment benefits.

She’s dealt with that issue in her state over the past year, with mixed results. Washington was among the many states targeted by criminals who have preyed on unprepared benefits-processing systems as the pandemic triggered a flood of jobless claims. She’s been subject to criticism from Republicans in the state over her handling of the crisis, as claimants experienced lengthy delays in getting unemployment checks.

Hageage brings a range of workforce development experience to the chief of staff role. Most recently, she was an education designer for economic mobility pathways at Education Design Lab, working on a community colleges program. She declined to comment.

Pallasch Touts Simon

Though ETA’s portfolio includes issues that receive a fair amount of bipartisan support—such as managing Job Corps vocational programs for disadvantaged youths—it was also subject to the political divide under Trump.

For instance, ETA issued guidance in the Trump administration’s final week that imposed stricter certification requirements on companies that rely on H-1B visa workers for contracted work. On Biden’s second day in office, ETA withdrew that interpretation.

The agency’s apprenticeship division faced backlash from congressional Democrats over its implementation of a Trump executive order to launch a new earn-as-you-learn job training system that transferred oversight from federal regulators to industry groups.

But Simon, in her prepared statement, sought to distance herself from any notion of politicized activity.

“I truly enjoyed my tenure at ETA, and have deep respect for the amazing career leadership with whom I served at the Department of Labor,” Simon said. “The decision to pursue this role was very personal, and I sought and followed Department ethics officials’ guidance throughout the process (and will continue to do so).”

Pallasch, the ETA chief under Trump, saluted Simon’s qualifications.

“I have the highest regard for Amy’s outstanding work, integrity, and dedication during her time in ETA,” he said, adding: “Her executive management skills, competence, and expertise would be a credit to the Senior Executive Service.”

(Updated with additional information about civil service selection process, in 4th and 7th paragraphs.)

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

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

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