Most of Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominees have moved steadily through the Senate’s confirmation process — going from their initial hearings to being approved by the committee and then to the floor of the Senate. Five of them have already been confirmed, and several more are expected to follow suit this week.
But one nominee has remained curiously stuck at the starting gate. Andrew Puzder, Trump’s choice for labor secretary and the CEO of a fast-food giant that owns Carl’s Jr., is about as close to running the Labor Department as he was when he was nominated in early December. Puzder is not just stuck in committee — his first hearing still doesn’t have a date yet. The first five attempts at one were postponed. There’s no word yet on the sixth.
Meanwhile, his critics, including Democrats and labor unions, have uncovered a number of scandals from both Puzder’s business and private life. Puzder’s ex-wife publicly accused him of repeatedly assaulting her in the 1980s. (She’s since retracted the charges.) On Monday night, the Huffington Post reported that Puzder acknowledged he and his wife hired an undocumented immigrant as a housekeeper — a revelation that clashes with the Trump administration’s rhetoric about the dangers of illegal immigration.
If Puzder does finally get a committee hearing, the questions about his record won’t stop there. Democrats are planning to hammer Puzder for his corporation’s long list of labor violations, as well as controversial criticisms he’s made in the past about worker protections like the minimum wage.
Puzder has had to insist he’s still interested in the position
Puzder’s team has insisted his nomination is merely tied up because of the “complex process” of trying to divest his personal financial holdings from CKE Restaurants, of which he is CEO.
Lamar Alexander, the chair of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee, is requiring that Puzder complete his personal financial disclosure and finish a plan with the Office of Government Ethics to avoid business conflicts before he receives a hearing. As of Tuesday, neither had been received by the Senate, according to sources close to the committee.
This isn’t entirely unusual. Many of Trump’s nominees also come from the private sector and have had to spend weeks separating their complicated financial ties from their company. Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon Mobil, had to devise a unique payment schedule to separate himself from the 2 million restricted shares of Exxon stock he owned.
But Puzder’s case is even more difficult. Exxon is publicly traded, so it’s easy to calculate the market value of Tillerson’s shares in the company and then compensate him accordingly.
By contrast, CKE Restaurants is not publicly traded — so figuring out how to pay Puzder for what he owns in the company will require coming up with new calculations of the value of his company. That’s at least part of what explains the holdup.
Critics see something more suspicious lurking in the Puzder delays
But Puzder’s critics see the delays as suspicious. They say the fact that Puzder has failed for two months since his nomination to get his paperwork in order either reflects a worrying apathy about the position or suggests that there’s something in his personal history he doesn’t want the public to know about.
The five delays have been so out of the ordinary that Puzder has twice taken the awkward measure of assuring the public that he is, in fact, still interested in becoming labor secretary. One came after CNN reported on January 17 that sources close to Puzder had expressed some doubt about assuming the post.
As the Atlantic’s Russell Berman writes, the suspicions have only been heightened by the personal controversies we do know about. First, there were Puzder’s defenses of risqué Carl’s Jr. ads. “I like our ads. I like beautiful women eating burgers in bikinis,” Puzder said. “I think it’s very American.”
Then came the story that Puzder’s ex-wife, Lisa Fierstein, said in a 1988 disposition that he had “assaulted and battered [her] by striking her violently about the face, chest, back, shoulders, and neck, without provocation or cause,” according to Politico. Fierstein later sent a statement to the committee saying that she regretted the decision to file abuse charges and that she retracted the charges in their entirety. (“You were not abusive. I will most definitely confirm to anyone who may ask that in no way was there abuse,” Fierstein wrote in a letter to Puzder.)
The news that Puzder hired an undocumented housekeeper fit this pattern. That act alone has sunk Cabinet nominees before: In 1993, President Bill Clinton’s attorney general nominee Zoe Baird withdrew after the public learned she hired an undocumented nanny, according to the Huffington Post.
But it’s not clear if a similar outcome will occur this year: Wilbur Ross, Trump’s pick for commerce secretary, has also admitted to hiring an undocumented worker, and it hasn’t derailed his nomination. And it doesn’t seem likely that the undocumented worker was what was holding Puzder back from the committee — the newest delay to his hearing date came after, not before, news of the housekeeper surfaced.
"It seems like there's something big holding him back," said one Senate staffer on the HELP Committee. "We just don't know what it is."
Senate Democrats also plan to attack Puzder’s views and his record on labor law
As the hearings got pushed back further and further, Senate Democrats and their allies have built an opposition file on Puzder that they hope to throw against him should he ever come up for a hearing.
Critics will point to both the long history of labor abuse allegations at CKE Restaurants and what liberals have called Puzder’s “anti-worker” policy positions. Puzder has frequently criticized hikes to the minimum wage — which 71 percent of Americans say should be raised — and criticized paid sick leave policies for federal contractors.
His record as CEO of CKE Restaurants includes a list of labor violations too long to include here in its entirety. A sampling of what Senate Democratic staffers say they’re likely to bring up at the committee hearing:
- Almost 60 percent of Fair Labor Standards Act investigations into Carl’s Jr. or Hardee’s resulted in violations against the fast-food chains, according to the advocacy group Allied Progress.
- CKE has also been cited 21 times by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration since 2009, according to ThinkProgress.
- One survey by the workers rights group ROC United found that 28 percent of CKE workers worked off the clock. “Approximately one third reported a wide range of wage theft violations, including not receiving required breaks, and overtime pay,” the study said.
- One in five CKE Restaurants workers said they had been pressured to do their jobs in a way that could risk injury.
- Nearly one-third of them have reported working more than 40 hours a week without being paid overtime, according to the report.
- Two-thirds of women at CKE Restaurants reported “experiencing unwanted sexual behaviors at work” — compared with 40 percent of the women in the fast-food industry overall, the study says.
- Meanwhile, Puzder himself earned $4.4 million in 2012, as well as more than $10 million in 2011.
- In 2004, CKE Restaurants paid up to $9 million to settle claims that former and current restaurant managers had been “improperly ... denied overtime compensation,” according to the publication Nation’s Restaurant News.
- Former Hardee’s employees have also alleged they were fired by the company for protesting low pay.
We don’t have proof that anything in Puzder’s long business record is what is causing his hearing from getting postponed again and again. But Senate Democrats have already begun tying the two together, arguing that CKE Restaurants’ labor violations may be one reason he appears unwilling to go through public vetting.
“Eight weeks and four canceled hearing dates since his nomination was announced, we still have yet to see a single shred of paperwork from Mr. Puzder,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) said in a statement on Tuesday. “... If Mr. Puzder ever does come before our committee, he’s going to have a lot of explaining to do.”