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Labor secretary defends merging anti-discrimination agencies

FILE - In this March 22, 2017, file photo, then-Labor secretary-designate Alexander Acosta testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Acosta, the son of Cuban immigrants and the only Latino in President Donald Trump's Cabinet, is defending a White House spending plan that would cut the government's workforce policing civil rights laws. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Cutting and merging two agencies that investigate workplace discrimination won’t reduce the government’s enforcement power, Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta said Wednesday. But Democrats pointed to what they say is President Donald Trump’s broader effort to roll back decades of civil rights protections.

“Department of Labor is going to allow, now, discrimination to run rampant,” Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., told Acosta at a hearing on Trump’s budget, which proposed the changes.

Trump’s budget recommends merging the office that enforces civil rights among federal contractors with the independent Equal Employee Opportunity Commission, which handles complaints against private businesses. The administration says the proposal will save taxpayer money. But the idea has generated opposition from both employers and workers’ groups, who fear such a move would create a sort of super enforcement agency that would dilute investigations but carry overwhelming punitive power.

It’s far from certain the GOP-controlled Congress will write the plan into its version of the budget. Acosta told the House panel that making the change would require legislation. He called the proposed merger “a common-sense” move and said savings would come from “the streamlining process” and not from enforcement.

As for Lee’s remark about allowing discrimination to run rampant: “With respect, I don’t think that’s the case,” Acosta said.

“I think it is,” Lee replied.

The exchanges were striking in part because Acosta is the only Latino in Trump’s Cabinet and has spoken in emotional terms about immigration matters — sometimes in conflict with Trump’s hardline on the issue.

Republicans have long criticized the EEOC for its case backlog.

Armed with subpoena power, the EEOC resolved more than 97,000 cases in fiscal year 2016 and took in nearly 92,000 new ones. The budget document says the number of new cases likely will drop slightly. The backlog of unresolved cases also is expected to gradually decline, from more than 73,000 to 60,000 cases in fiscal year 2020.

The second agency, Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, is part of the Labor Department. The budget proposes reducing staff from 571 to 440 employees and merging it with the EEOC, for a saving of just over $17 million.

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