President Joe Biden has offered Julie Su, who heads California’s Labor and Workforce Development Agency, the role of deputy Labor secretary, and she has accepted, two people familiar with the decision told POLITICO.
Su, the daughter of Chinese immigrants and a longtime advocate for low-wage workers, was among the names initially floated for Labor secretary. But Biden nominated Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, a longtime friend who had the backing of the AFL-CIO. Walsh’s Senate confirmation hearing is on Thursday.
A graduate of Harvard Law School, Su served as the state’s labor commissioner for about eight years before becoming its labor secretary. Prior to that, she spearheaded litigation at Asian Americans Advancing Justice, a legal aid organization in Los Angeles.
The announcement is expected sometime next week, one of the people said. If confirmed, Su would step into the job at a critical point for American labor, with millions of people out of work and a narrowly divided Congress poised to stand in the way of Biden’s major legislative initiatives. Still, the Labor Department has the power to enact regulatory changes that can make the workplace safer and empower employees.
Su is likely to face questions in her confirmation hearing about her role in an explosive unemployment fraud story plaguing California; she estimated during a press call last week that the state’s unemployment department, which she oversees, had issued at least $11 billion in fraudulent payments last year. Two state audits released last week about the Employment Development Department pointed to a series of “missteps” last spring that opened the door to fraud, including a decision to shut off a stop-payment safeguard in an effort to speed payments.
Her selection, first reported by Bloomberg Law, is likely to somewhat appease Asian American Pacific Island advocates, who lobbied heavily for Su’s selection as Labor secretary and were disappointed when the role went to a white male. Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus members met with then-transition chairs Jeff Zients and Ted Kaufman on Dec. 7 to suggest her for the top job, and Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) threw her weight behind the Californian later that week as well. On Dec. 16, the caucus sent another letter to Biden’s team to reiterate its support.
“As both a woman of color and the daughter of immigrants, Secretary Su would bring a diversity of thought and experience to the Cabinet,” the caucus wrote. “She has dedicated her career to the advancement of workers’ rights, fair labor practices, and advancing equity and opportunities for all workers, including the most vulnerable who are often overlooked.”
AAPI Victory Fund, a super PAC focused on mobilizing Asian American and Pacific Islanders, sent a letter to the president-elect on Nov. 21 backing Su to lead the U.S. Labor Department, calling her an “exceptionally qualified AAPI candidate who we believe should be under consideration.”
"She’s a woman, she’s AAPI, she’s incredibly highly qualified, she has the support of unions in California and she has done yeoman’s work in the labor movement," AAPI Victory Fund Chair Shekar Narasimhan told POLITICO. "Would you not want to have that person sitting there tomorrow morning?"
Su would help Walsh oversee unemployment insurance, worker safety, job training, and other aspects of the economic recovery — not to mention implement the sweeping pro-labor agenda Biden campaigned on, which would increase workplace requirements and make it easier for workers to organize, among other things. Many of these responsibilities dovetail with her current duties in California, where she has overseen jobless benefits and worker safety during the pandemic.
The state’s coronavirus response provides some indication of how Su could tackle thorny federal issues — including mandatory workplace safety rules. California became one of just a handful of states to implement its own workplace restrictions when it issued an emergency temporary standard, which outlines steps employers must take to protect workers from exposure, or else face penalties.
Though Su herself has not spoken publicly about the standard, she is believed to have supported it — and will likely play a key role in helping the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration shape its own should the agency deem one necessary following a recently signed executive order. Her influence is likely to spark concern from employers, who have spoken out against the California guidelines.
"It’s a completely unworkable standard," Ed Egee, a vice president at the National Retail Federation, said.
Su did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Rebecca Rainey contributed to this report.
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