WASHINGTON — Jessica Looman, a former labor union and Minnesota state official, has been running a key agency of the U.S. Labor Department for more than two years, without being confirmed as the official boss.
On Wednesday, Looman’s nomination to head the Wage and Hour Division is likely to be approved by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension (HELP) Committee, which would pave the way for a confirmation vote by the full Senate.
Looman’s supporters, mostly the nation’s labor unions and especially the construction trades, hope Looman wins confirmation. But that’s not assured. Most Senate Republicans remain steadfastly opposed to the nomination and Democrats need 60 votes to confirm her and only have 51 seats.
This would be the second time the HELP Committee considers Looman’s nomination. The panel approved Looman’s nomination last year after she was chosen by President Biden to become the administrator of the Wage and Hour Division. But the Senate never acted to confirm her.
Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., pressed for a confirmation vote on Dec. 22, the last day of the 117th Congress for the U.S. Senate.
But Republican senators objected to a procedural motion that would have allowed the confirmation vote to go forward.
“Blocking a well-qualified, bipartisan nominee is deeply disappointing to both Minnesotans and workers across this country who expect us to be in their corner,” Smith said at the time.
Biden, who re-nominated Looman last month, has had a tough time getting a candidate confirmed to head the Wage and Hour Division, which enforces federal labor laws for all workers, from highly paid, skilled employees to migrant farm workers.
Biden’s first pick for the job, David Weil, was forced to withdraw his nomination after Senate Democrats failed to muster enough votes for his confirmation. Three Democrats joined Republicans on Weil’s 53-47 confirmation vote: Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly of Arizona. Sinema has since become an independent.
At the beginning of his term, Biden tapped Looman to serve as “acting” administrator of the Wage and Hour office, a position that does not require Senate confirmation, while he searched for an administrator for the division.
After Weil withdrew his nomination, Biden gave Looman a new title and sent her nomination to the Senate. Looman needed a new title, although she continued to perform the same duties at the Wage and Hour Division, because, under federal law, “acting” administrators cannot be confirmed to the job they are doing.
No matter the title, Looman has been the Biden administration’s top wage regulator since January 2021. She says she has a passion for protecting workers’ rights.
“I know that most employers want to understand and comply with the law,” Looman said during her confirmation hearing last year. “And to support responsible employers and all working people, we must focus on protecting the most vulnerable among us – because it hurts both workers and responsible employers when workers become victims of wage theft, retaliation, or exploitation.”
Looman also said “in America, today, we are seeing workers who are not getting paid the minimum wages and overtime they have earned and children working in dangerous occupations. I am committed to helping to prevent violations.”
Republicans and some business groups remain steadfastly opposed to the nomination.
Last year, the nominee sought to strengthen and modernize federal prevailing wage regulations, drawing a backlash from the nation’s construction industry. The prevailing wage is the local average wage contractors must pay workers on a federal project.
The Labor Department called Looman’s new regulations the most significant reworking of federal prevailing wage law in 40 years.
The move was also cheered by labor unions, including the Laborer’s International Union of North America (LIUNA) which once employed Looman as general counsel to its Minnesota and North Dakota chapter.
“She’s done a lot of good things for working men and women,” said Joel Smith, president of LIUNA Minnesota and North Dakota. “She’s got credibility and integrity and is supportive of labor laws.”
However, construction contractors damned the new prevailing wage regulations as a radical attempt to force wages up and raise the cost of federal projects.
Looman also took fire from business groups with regulations that make it more difficult for companies to treat workers as independent contractors. That roiled industries that rely on gig workers.
As a LIUNA attorney, Looman negotiated construction policy, drafted legislation and helped set the union’s political agenda, Smith said.
She then was tapped by former DFL Gov. Mark Dayton to serve as the commissioner for the Minnesota Department of Commerce. She also served as an official in the Dayton administration’s Department of Labor and Industry.
After leaving state government, Looman was executive director of the Minnesota State Building and Construction Trades Council.
During the hearing on her nomination in the HELP Committee last year, Looman said she was inspired by her parents to go into public service. She said her mother was active in the community, working for the Red Cross and the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and “was passionate about making sure that everyone, and especially women, voted.”
She said her father was “a locomotive engineer and union steward when I was little, also served in Ohio state government.”
“My dad especially taught me that hard work and workers are the foundation of our society, our economy, and our community. He’s pretty proud of me right now,” Looman said.
Biden is likely to also send another Labor Department candidate to the U.S. Senate for confirmation. Looman’s boss, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh is expected to leave the Biden administration in the coming days to lead the National Hockey League Players’ Association,
Looman is from St. Paul. A graduate of the University of Minnesota Law School, she is married and has two sons.