The White House proposed merging the departments of Labor and Education as part of a federal government reorganization plan, but the prospect of the Department of Education and the Workforce — the name of the proposed combined agency — becoming a reality faces an uphill battle, experts say.
The proposal, unveiled last month, would merge all of the existing Labor and Education department programs into a single department with four main subagencies focused on K-12, higher education/workforce development, enforcement and research/evaluation/administration.
The enforcement agency would include worker protection agencies from the Labor Department that are responsible for enforcing statutes related to workers' pay, safety, benefits and other protections, as well as federal workers' compensation programs, according to the White House report.
Under the proposal, the Employee Benefits Security Administration would be part of the Department of Education and the Workforce's enforcement subagency. In fiscal year 2017, the EBSA recovered $1.1 billion in direct payment to ERISA-governed retirement plans, participants and beneficiaries, including $682.3 million from investigations, according to the agency.
Ian Lanoff, principal with Groom Law Group, a national ERISA law firm in Washington, has concerns about the proposal but doesn't think the EBSA would lose resources or employees in a reorganization.
Instead, he predicted DOL employees who focus on training programs could be reassigned to education-related areas.
Mr. Lanoff was administrator of the DOL's Pension and Welfare Benefit Administration — the precursor to the EBSA — from 1977 to 1981, and responsible for the development and administration of ERISA regulations and enforcement policies. With few details of the administration's plan readily available, Mr. Lanoff said he was unsure how a merger would affect the DOL on the whole: "Is the idea just to move everyone from Education and just house them under the same roof as Labor? Or is what they're really intending to do is to dilute the mission of both Labor and Education by assigning additional tasks to the workforce at Labor so that their attention would be diverted from what they're doing now?"
Chris Lu, deputy secretary of labor from 2014 to 2017 and now a senior fellow at the University of Virginia Miller Center, had a similar thought. "The Department of Education and Department of Labor have never been particularly well-liked agencies within the Republican Party," he said. "So the idea that you can take what I consider to be two important functions and basically merge them into one, in my mind is not only about efficiency, it's a precursor to starting to shrink both of those functions."
In a statement, American Benefits Council President James A. Klein said, "However the government agency is structured, what is most important is that the entity overseeing the employee benefits system views employers as partners in the effort to promote Americans' financial well-being and that the government agency has the mandate and resources to perform its essential functions."