The Executive and Legislative Nominations Committee voted to confirm two of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s appointees following hearings Tuesday.
The committee approved the appointment of Labor Commissioner Sharon Palmer and Jamey Bell, the governor’s pick for Child Advocate. The committee voted 17-0 in favor of both nominations. Both will need to be approved by at least one chamber of the General Assembly but already are working in their positions.
Palmer took over the reigns of the Labor Department in August after her predecessor, Glenn Marshall, departed due to “personal family matters.” Malloy announced Bell’s appointment in September to succeed the previous Child Advocate, Jeanne Milstein, who retired.
Palmer has spent much of her career in organized labor. At the time Malloy appointed her, she was serving as president of AFT Connecticut, the state’s second largest teachers union. She was also a member of AFL-CIO’s executive board.
She tried early on in her confirmation hearing to relieve concerns that her connections to organized labor would make her a biased labor commissioner.
“Let me stop for a minute and talk for something I think is in the background here as far as my nomination is concerned. Everybody knows I have a very strong labor background. I think there is some concern I am too pro-labor. I am proud of my labor background and think I will serve well,” she said.
Palmer said she would be willing to listen to anyone, whether they are an employer or from organized labor.
But not everyone was convinced. Rep. Selim Noujaim, R-Waterbury, said he has received calls from constituents in the business community who were unhappy with her appointment because of her labor involvement.
“The question I would like to ask of you so that I can put their minds at ease, is now that you have different hat, you will be unbiased to all and be doing your job accordingly,” Noujaim said.
In answering the question, Palmer cited her strict Irish Catholic upbringing. She said she valued a sense of fairness and an ability to hear both sides of a story.
“That’s what I bring to the table as a person, as an individual,” she said.
Palmer said if any employers feel they have been unfairly treated by the Labor Department, she wanted to hear about it.
During the public testimony segment of the hearing, AFL-CIO Secretary Treasurer Lori Pelletier said the union’s loss was the state’s gain.
“She understands the needs of workers both union and nonunion and she also understands the business community’s needs to survive and prosper,” she said.
The nominations committee also asked Palmer about the Labor Department’s fiscal situation. Given that 80 percent of the department’s funding comes from the federal government, Palmer said the agency has been worried about recent uncertainty in Washington.
Palmer said the recession and seasonal unemployment have also made more work for the department.
“We’re really working on overload right now and we will continue to do that as best we can until we get through this recession. It’s the nature of what we do,” she said.
Looking to clarify what Palmer meant, Sen. Toni Harp, D-New Haven, asked whether the agency was “functioning on probably less than adequate resources.” Palmer answered “Yes.”
The committee spent over an hour questioning Palmer but lawmakers had few questions for Bell, who previously worked as executive director of the nonprofit Connecticut Voices for Children.
In light of last month’s school shooting in Newtown, Sen. Martin Looney, D-New Haven, asked what Bell thought should be done about the mental health treatment of young children in Connecticut. She said there is a mismatch between the mental health needs of kids and the resources available to them. Bell said her office would work with stakeholders to make progress on the issue.
“I see it as a key piece of my office’s work for the next couple of years,” she said.
Like Malloy has done in the aftermath of the shooting, Bell said society would benefit from destigmatizing mental health conditions.
She hopes to make sure mental health is “as benign and accepted a part of the human condition as having a heart condition.”