Bloomberg Law
July 18, 2019, 10:04 AM

Trump’s New Labor Chief Was ‘Sidelined’ as Acosta’s No. 2

Ben Penn
Ben Penn

The Labor Department’s new leader will get a chance to put his own stamp on workforce policy after being iced out of substantive policy discussions as outgoing Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta’s second-in-command.

Former DOL Chief of Staff Nicholas Geale barred senior leaders from including Deputy Secretary Patrick Pizzella on policy matters shortly after the Senate confirmed Pizzella for the job in 2018, according to current and former Labor Department officials. That order marked an effort to prevent Pizzella from influencing important decisions related to wage and workplace safety enforcement, labor union financial oversight, and job training.

The veteran GOP operative and business ally on July 19 will take over for Acosta in an acting role, following the embattled labor secretary’s decision to step down in the face of criticism over his handling of a decade-old teen sex trafficking case as a prosecutor in Florida. Pizzella now gets his first true opportunity to dictate the agency’s vast workplace policy portfolio.

“It was a blanket direction—‘No policy through Pat; only operations,’” said a former senior administration official with direct knowledge of Geale’s April 2018 order. “Our understanding at the time was that Pat was more ideologically aligned with the White House and the president than the secretary would want him to be. So they didn’t need the headache of someone pushing for more policy changes.”

Geale’s order, which was understood to have come on behalf of Secretary Acosta, got the attention of White House aides. Members of the White House budget, regulatory, and policy offices began weekly communications with Pizzella about Geale’s behavior, according to a senior administration official with direct knowledge of the situation. The White House dialogue on Geale’s directive to limit Pizzella’s role contributed to his eventual removal from office, said the official.

Geale resigned in May following a White House investigation into accusations that he verbally abused staff. Those allegations were unrelated to Pizzella.

A White House official said Geale’s exit was decided at DOL, not the White House. Geale declined to comment.

Differing Leadership Styles

Acosta has been accused by White House aides of slow-walking the president’s agenda and criticized by his senior subordinates of barricading himself from agency heads. Pizzella joined the department last year as DOL officials already were clashing with the president’s hardliner labor policy assistant James Sherk, a Heritage Foundation alum.

The move to “sideline” Pizzella—in the words of four officials—from policy influence and the White House’s response underscores a stark contrast in leadership styles between Pizzella and Acosta. The installation of an acting secretary whose previously limited role concerned the White House aides also portends the start of a faster-paced, pro-management facelift for Trump labor policy heading into the final year of the president’s four-year term.

Although he’s been tight-lipped about his agenda, Pizzella has a background in Republican politics and a history of siding with management over unions. That has corporate lobbyists expecting his ascendance may accelerate the completion of overtime regulations desired by businesses, step up investigations of worker centers, and rein in regional offices perceived as upholding Obama administration enforcement and litigation strategies.

A separate former administration official said that Pizzella was kept in the loop on regulatory and policy talks and had review authority before rules, policy guidance, and personnel decisions were given their final signature by Acosta. But Pizzella rarely made labor policy suggestions or edits to ongoing DOL rules, mostly staying in his chief operating lane, the official said.

“Deputy Secretary Pizzella has a wide range of duties as the chief operating officer of the Department of Labor (DOL) including policy development and implementation with DOL agencies,” a DOL spokeswoman said in a statement. “As Acting Secretary, he will be the chief executive officer and will set the policy agenda and continue to work for its implementation.”

Pizzella didn’t provide a comment when reached directly through his office.

Cordial Relationship

Pizzella had a cordial and professional relationship with Acosta but was never part of the secretary’s inner circle of trusted advisers, according to six current and former Trump Labor Department officials. That group of mostly lawyers determined the bulk of the department’s policy and regulatory priorities.

Deputy secretaries in any Cabinet agency traditionally take on varying roles depending on the needs of the top official. Pizzella’s background as head of the DOL’s administrative and management agency in the George W. Bush White House made him a commonsense choice to assume a human resources-type function in Trump’s presidency.

But some politically appointed officials griped that the agency was failing to take advantage of an experienced labor policy hand—especially one who would be more inclined to execute the president’s priority of freeing businesses from regulations that they say hurt job growth.

The decision also sounded irregular to a former DOL official from the past two Democratic administrations. Seth Harris said he’s never heard of a deputy secretary being excluded from department policy discussions.

“Pizzella’s exile from policy circles under Secretary Acosta was a unique and off choice given Pizzella’s experience and relationships,” said Harris, who was deputy and acting labor secretary under President Barack Obama.

A DOL official working for Acosta said in April 2018, shortly after Pizzella was sworn in as deputy, that the agency had defined Pizzella’s role as “budget, management, and execution, but it’s not policy development or personnel.”

Pizzella is well connected and highly regarded among Republican lawmakers, White House aides, and powerful business lobbyists—the same contingent that criticized Acosta for being too cautious with deregulation and policy. He was originally in line to serve as deputy to Trump’s first choice for labor chief, fast-food magnate Andy Puzder. Acosta agreed to take Pizzella on as his No. 2 after Puzder withdrew his name from consideration amid personal controversy.

Difference on Unions

By the time Pizzella was eventually confirmed by the Senate, after his nomination languished there for 10 months, Acosta had established a leadership tone that stood in contrast to what was expected under Puzder. Some aides said Acosta was motivated by a desire to avoid alienating unions, even if that meant rejecting personnel and policy recommendations from the White House.

One former DOL official said Pizzella supported a plan to offer buyouts to staff and leave certain retiree vacancies unfilled on efficiency grounds. Acosta balked.

“Pat was on board. This was something that was good low-hanging fruit,” said the official. “I was in the secretary’s office maybe a minute and just got shot down. ‘Nope, not gonna’ do it. Too controversial.’” The person said Acosta was concerned about upsetting his own staff union with the reductions.

Pizzella established himself as a firm management advocate when serving as the sole Republican member on the Federal Labor Relations Authority under Obama. This meant he consistently wrote dissents that sided with federal sector management when the panel’s two Democrats issued majority decisions in favor of unions. He also moved to shutter two FLRA field offices and considered discontinuing talks with the union representing agency employees as acting chairman early in the Trump administration.

When Pizzella arrived at his next government gig, as the Labor Department’s second-ranked official, he now had a boss who prioritized keeping core constituencies, both labor and business, relatively pleased. The politically neutral operations and administrative tasks would prevent Pizzella from interfering with Acosta’s mission, the current and former DOL officials said.

“I think it was just clear from early on that Secretary Acosta didn’t really have a penchant for the administrative side of things—unless it was administrative law,” one former department official who worked closely with both men said. “So I think that was Pat’s role.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Ben Penn in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Simon Nadel at; Terence Hyland at