Senate GOP ousts MN labor commissioner, plays politics with worker health, safety

In a surprise move yesterday that troubled Minnesota’s union leaders and outraged the DFL minority, Senate Republicans voted to oust the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry’s acting commissioner, Nancy Leppink.

Her removal threatens to undermine ongoing efforts, led by Leppink in collaboration with labor and industry leaders, to keep workers safe and healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic, union leaders warned.

Minnesota AFL-CIO President Bill McCarthy, the state’s highest-ranking union officer, called the party-line vote a “slap in the face to working Minnesotans.” Joel Smith, president of LIUNA Minnesota and North Dakota, said the firing “will make workers less safe.”

Gov. Tim Walz appointed Leppink to serve as labor commissioner after taking office in January 2019, but she, like several members of Walz’s cabinet, had not been confirmed via floor vote in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Majority Leader Paul Gazelka (R-Nisswa) stunned DFLers by putting Leppink’s confirmation on the Senate agenda yesterday, as lawmakers held a special session required to extend Walz’s state of emergency during the pandemic.

Minority Leader Susan Kent (D-Woodbury) said both she and the governor’s office learned of Republicans’ plan to vote not to confirm Leppink in a text message Gazelka sent just minutes before bringing her appointment to the floor. The ambush effectively prevented Leppink’s supporters preparing arguments in her defense.

“None of us in the minority had any expectation that this was going to be an issue in today’s session,” Sen. Dick Cohen (D-St. Paul) said, adding that the surprise confirmation vote was “in contrast to how we’ve handled things” since he joined the Senate in 1987.

Others from Cohen’s caucus were less diplomatic.

Sen. Jason Isaacson (D-Shoreview) called the move “bush league.” He questioned whether Senate Republicans, who have voted repeatedly to curb Walz’s emergency powers during the pandemic, were exacting political revenge.

“You look at the pedigree (Leppink) brings to the table – the professionalism, the experience,” Isaacson said. “And then you look at the ridiculously long list, bipartisan list … who unanimously endorse Commissioner Leppink…

“It leads me to wonder, why would you do this? Is it because we didn’t get our way, and now we’re mad? Is it because the governor hurt our feelings?”

After accepting a position in Walz’s cabinet, Leppink relocated from Geneva, Switzerland, where she worked as branch chief for the International Labour Organization, overseeing efforts to improve worker protections in 187 member states.

But St. Paul is where Leppink began her career as a watchdog for workers’ rights 34 years ago, advancing from the state Attorney General’s Office to a position as chief general counsel in the labor department. She served under both Republican and DFL governors. Later, she went to work in the Obama administration as a leader in the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division.

In less than two years as commissioner, Leppink has drawn praise from unions and industry groups for her department’s approach to workforce development, particularly when it comes to expanding registered apprenticeship opportunities statewide.

Additionally, Leppink has sought to modernize the department’s enforcement of wage-and-hour standards, including Minnesota’s historic wage theft law, which Leppink championed last year. The department recently secured nearly $315,000 in total back-wages owed to 70 construction workers on a project in Thief River Falls, where a subcontractor violated prevailing-wage, overtime and other wage rules.

But during debate on the Senate floor yesterday, Gazelka and other Republican senators said Leppink had not been accommodating enough to the state’s business owners.

“The Department of Labor and Industry is expected to be responsive and not a hindrance to state’s businesses,” Gazelka said, claiming his caucus has heard “case after case of harassment” from constituents interacting with the department. “She’s in the wrong role.”

Every Republican who spoke in support of removing Leppink was quick to offer assurances that the decision was not being made lightly – even if it was being made without warning.

“I take this very seriously,” Sen. Carrie Ruud (R-Breezy Point) said.

“This is a serious issue we take up,” added Sen. Jason Rarick (R-Pine City).

“We do take this very seriously,” Assistant Majority Leader Karin Housley, of Stillwater, insisted. When the Senate Jobs Committee issued no recommendation on Leppink’s confirmation during a meeting six months ago, Housley added, “that was the notification right there” that yesterday’s floor vote was coming.

DFLers remained unconvinced. Sen. Scott Dibble (D-Minneapolis) pleaded with Republicans not to throw the agency in charge of protecting workers’ health and safety into chaos during a public health emergency, just “to get a shot off at a chief executive with which you are unhappy.”

Whatever victory Republicans achieved with yesterday’s vote, Minnesota Building and Construction Trades President Harry Melander said, came at the expense of working people.

“In these uncertain times, difference of opinion is healthy, but this kind of unproductive posturing in government serves no one and creates anxiety for our members,” Melander said. “Minnesota workers should be put first, but today’s action by the Senate put workers last.”

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