President Biden on Tuesday announced his intention to nominate Julie Su, the deputy labor secretary, to succeed Labor Secretary Martin J. Walsh, who has said he plans to leave his position in March.
Ms. Su has helped oversee the Department of Labor during an administration that has made strong overtures to organized labor and to workers, both by communicating support for workers who are striking or seeking to unionize and through a series of regulatory, enforcement and legislative actions.
Among those initiatives are a rule that would make it more likely for workers to be considered employees, granting them access to a minimum wage and unemployment insurance, and legislation that provides incentives to owners of clean energy projects to pay wages similar to union rates.
Ms. Su’s contribution to these administration achievements won her widespread backing from labor unions.
“Julie Su is broadly respected by unions, cares about the plight of workers, and folks appreciate her ability to manage the plumbing inside of D.O.L. and make the case to the world,” said Patrick Gaspard, a former senior union official and ambassador to South Africa who now heads the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.
If confirmed, Ms. Su will take over the department at a time of rising interest in labor organizing. The labor secretary has little formal role in promoting unionization; it is the National Labor Relations Board that enforces labor rights. But Mr. Biden leaned on his first labor secretary to encourage workers to unionize, appointing Mr. Walsh to a task force to explore ways to increase union membership and including him in a White House meeting with union organizers.
Ms. Su would probably be deployed in a similar way and make the case for legislation that the administration had failed to enact, which could benefit Mr. Biden politically even if it was unlikely to pass the Republican-controlled House over the next two years.
Among the assignments that may land on her desk are promoting the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or PRO Act, which would make it easier for workers to unionize by threatening fines for employers that violated labor law, and elevating the importance of workers in service professions like child care and home care.
Mr. Biden has proposed spending hundreds of billions of dollars to benefit care workers, but the proposals were largely absent from the legislation that Congress passed during his first two years in office. The PRO Act passed the House in 2021 but stalled in the Senate. It was reintroduced in Congress on Tuesday.
In his announcement, Mr. Biden urged the Senate to advance Ms. Su’s nomination quickly “so that we can finish the job for America’s workers,” a refrain he appears to have adopted in support of an expected re-election campaign.
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If she is confirmed, Ms. Su’s opportunities to advance a new regulatory agenda will also be somewhat limited. As deputy labor secretary, she helped oversee the department’s push for rules designed to protect workers from Covid-19; a rule making it more likely for workers in the gig economy and elsewhere to be classified as employees rather than contractors; and a rule that would most likely raise the wages paid to workers on federally funded construction projects. The latter two rules have yet to be made final.
Some Republicans cited concern over her involvement in advancing such regulations. “Deputy Secretary Su has a troubling record and is currently overseeing the Department of Labor’s development of anti-worker regulations that will dismantle the gig economy,” said Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, the ranking Republican on the committee that will hold a hearing on her nomination, in a statement on Tuesday.
But few high-profile regulatory items remain. The most prominent is a move to raise the cutoff below which most salaried workers are automatically eligible for time-and-a-half overtime pay. The current cutoff is about $35,500, and the Biden administration is expected to propose raising it substantially, likely setting up a challenge from the business community.
A federal judge struck down a 2016 rule put forth by the Obama administration raising the cutoff to about $47,500.
Ms. Su, a speaker of Mandarin whose parents were immigrants, served as head of California’s Labor and Workforce Development Agency before joining the Biden administration in 2021.
The agency won praise from worker groups for being quick to establish rules protecting workers from hazards related to Covid-19, but critics highlighted accusations that the agency paid out billions in fraudulent unemployment claims. Ms. Su conceded that a large number of unemployment insurance payouts during the pandemic had been improper, and Republicans cited those accusations in opposing her 2021 nomination as deputy, which the Senate approved, 50 to 47.
For several years before taking over the Labor and Workforce Development Agency in 2019, Ms. Su served as California’s labor commissioner — its top enforcer of minimum-wage and overtime laws. In that capacity, she was known as an innovative regulator, reorienting the agency so that it relied on worker complaints as the basis for investigations rather than random inspections of workplaces.
She helped draw attention to cases in which employers cheated workers on minimum-wage and overtime payments with a public-relations campaign announcing that “Wage Theft Is a Crime.”
Before entering government, she was known for her work in the 1990s on behalf of several dozen Thai seamstresses who had been forced to work in a Southern California sweatshop for far below the minimum wage until the authorities freed them. Ms. Su helped the workers win compensation from the companies that used the sweatshop as a supplier. The MacArthur Foundation cited her work on behalf of the workers when it awarded her a “genius” grant in 2001.