100 Days for Labor and Family: Promised, Proposed and Passed

The Trump administration began with high expectations for job creation through protectionism and infrastructure development, reform of family leave and child care policies, and tax and regulation reforms aimed at stimulating economic growth.  Little of that agenda has been implemented, yet clear patterns have emerged with important implications for gender justice and equality.  This article examines policies related to Labor and Family that have been promised, proposed and passed.

The most immediate developments occurred in federal employment and contracting, where a hiring freeze and the repeal of fair pay and workplace safety and health rules will disproportionately affect women.

Trump’s budget proposal promises to slash employment in federal agencies, where women predominate, while shifting resources toward traditionally male employment sectors such as military, law enforcement, and construction.  The budget also dropped Trump’s campaign promise of a $1 trillion investment in transportation, housing, and other infrastructure, which, if coupled with vigorous recruitment and retention programs, had the potential to benefit women as well as men.

The appointment of Ivanka Trump to a formal position in the White House sustains hope for innovation on family leave and other work-life policies, although we have no concrete proposals or statements of support from the President or Congress.  And, while criticism of low wages and poor working conditions in the fast-food industry helped undermine Trump’s first choice to head the Department of Labor, his second nomination and subsequent statements show little support for policies aimed at improving wages and working conditions in this or other heavily female employment sectors.

In its first hundred days, the Trump administration echoed a narrowly gendered conception of Labor and Family that the President had articulated during the campaign.

His first official statements withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and froze hiring in federal positions outside the military and public safety.   Jane Lawrence Summer points out that protectionist campaign rhetoric appealed to a particularly male concern for the loss of well-paid manufacturing jobs, although it is unclear whether those can be restored through changes in trade policy. The hiring freeze, however, had an immediate impact on an estimated 15,000 to 30,000 jobs held disproportionately by women.

The Administration’s emphasis on manufacturing, military, and law enforcement jobs reinforces a broader pattern of devaluing service and caring jobs that have historically been reserved for women.  For example, in late February, officials at two U.S. Army bases announced that on-base day care centers would be closed “as a result of staff shortage due to the federal hiring freeze.”  When it was pointed out that the freeze had actually exempted “positions providing child care to the children of military personnel,” base commanders explained that the staffing problems were caused by delays in background checks, medical exams, and other administrative jobs that were affected by the freeze.  The administration had recognized that child-care workers contributed to national security (an advance of sorts, no doubt), but not that health and clerical workers were vital, too.

In addition to shaping job creation policies, this gendered conception of the workforce informed the Trump administration’s approach to workplace rights and protections.

As the President committed to trade policies that would “promote American industry, protect American workers, and raise American wages,” he showed little inclination to improve wages or working conditions through regulation (he is, after all, a proponent of slashing regulations). In nominating fast-food CEO Andrew Puzder to head the Department of Labor and proposing a 20% cut to that department’s budget, Trump’s administration revealed a deep aversion toward labor protections that are particularly important for low-wage, mostly female, workers in service and retail.  The recently unveiled budget bill spares the Department of Labor from the most dramatic cuts, but slashes funding for job training and placement programs that, Debra Fitzpatrick points out, have previously been important routes for women and non-white workers into the construction jobs that Trump proposes to create through infrastructure development.

As part of that broader effort to repeal regulations enacted by the Obama administration, Trump also signed bills loosening restrictions on federal contractors with records of wage theft and workplace health and safety violations.  The administration’s opposition to workplace regulations also raises the stakes for local debates over the minimum wage and work requirements for food stamps and unemployment benefits.

One area where the Administration has displayed a more flexible conception of labor and family has been family leave and child care, perhaps because these issues have been relatively low priorities and because they have been pushed by the President’s daughter and advisor, Ivanka Trump.

During the campaign, candidate Trump promoted a plan, developed by his daughter, to provide workers six-weeks of paid maternity leave and an income tax deduction for child care expenses.  Still, by restricting the program to mothers and funding it through tax cuts and reductions in other programs, the proposal reflected the candidate’s conservative ideas about both gender and fiscal policy.

Since the inauguration, the administration has expanded the proposed leave policy to include fathers and unveiled a more specific plan for child care; it has met resistance on account of its high costs and because it benefits high-income families over the poor.  Ivanka Trump’s newly formalized White House position could give her more influence, and her office recently floated an expansion of the Child and Dependent Care Credit, which would benefit low-income parents more than a tax credit. It is unclear whether Congress or the President would support the change.

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In summary, we can divide the administration’s actions on Labor and Family into three categories: promised, proposed, and passed.  They promised job creation in traditionally male sectors such as manufacturing and construction, with the possibility of opening those jobs to previously excluded workers and delivering egalitarian outcomes in leave and child-care policies.  Those promises were partially undermined by a proposed budget that emphasizes cuts to federal employment without increased infrastructure investments, and passed appointments and executive orders that slash workplace protections and anti-discrimination policies for both public and private sector workers.  The administration has, thus far, failed to pass the massive promised tax cuts aimed at stimulating economic growth.  Its first 100 days have built on Trump’s campaign, projecting both heady rhetoric and a high level of uncertainty about its approach to Labor and Family.

— William P. Jones is a Professor of History at the University of Minnesota

— Photo by Department of Business, Innovation and Skills