Julie Su Nominated to Replace Walsh at DOL

Biden tapped the deputy secretary of labor to take over as head of the DOL, with a Senate confirmation hearing to come.

Julie Su

President Joe Biden announced his intent to nominate Deputy Secretary of Labor Julie Su to replace the outgoing secretary, Marty Walsh, who is leaving to lead the National Hockey League Players‘ Association.

Su was appointed deputy secretary in July 2021 and still faces a Senate confirmation hearing. Biden called Su a “champion for workers” and touted her work in California on Wage Theft is a Crime, a multilingual, state-wide campaign to reach low-wage workers and their employers and help them understand their rights around pay and labor abuses.

“Over several decades, Julie has led the largest state labor department in the nation, cracked down on wage theft, fought to protect trafficked workers, increased the minimum wage, created good-paying, high-quality jobs, and established and enforced workplace safety standards,” Biden wrote.

During the hearing for her current position, Republican lawmakers questioned her about fraudulent unemployment payments made during the COVID-19 pandemic that occurred when she was the secretary of the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency.

Retirement Focus

If Su is confirmed by the Senate, she will take over a DOL that has been active in both creating and clarifying retirement savings rules and regulations. This year, it is working to enact, as well as clarify, retirement reform passed in the SECURE 2.0 Act of 2022, while also facing a legal challenge of its rule that environment, social and governance investment vehicles can be included in retirement plans.

Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, will preside over Su’s hearing as chair of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. He supported the nomination in a statement, saying, “I am confident Julie Su will be an excellent Secretary of Labor. I look forward to working with her to protect workers’ rights and build the trade union movement in this country.”

From a retirement policy perspective, Su’s tenure at the DOL is likely to mean few changes to ongoing projects, says Joshua Lichtenstein, who leads the ERISA and fiduciary practice at Ropes & Gray LLP.

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Senate ESG Roadblock

Lichtenstein does, however, see a potentially difficult confirmation hearing for Su, particularly around the DOL’s ESG rule, which has faced pushback from many Republicans and a lawsuit last week from a conservative law firm.

“That has become such a flashpoint that, given the makeup in Congress, I would not be surprised if this isn’t a quick and smooth confirmation process,” Lichtenstein says.

Lichtenstein points to the long confirmation process in September 2022 for Employee Benefits Security Administration head Lisa Gomez.

Walsh announced his departure on February 16, noting that he would leave in mid-March to take a post as executive director of the union representing NHL players. The Department of Labor said Su would serve as acting secretary, and Walsh praised her leadership.

Biden said in Tuesday’s announcement that Su has been a “critical partner” in working with Walsh.

“She helped avert a national rail shutdown, improved access to good jobs free from discrimination through my Good Jobs Initiative, and is ensuring that the jobs we create in critical sectors like semiconductor manufacturing, broadband and healthcare are good-paying, stable and accessible jobs for all,” he wrote.

Su earned a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award for her work as a civil rights attorney representing undocumented immigrant garment workers.