Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘Elaine Chao’

Business Lobbyists Yearn For The Days When Elaine Chao Ran The Labor Department

Tuesday, January 5th, 2010

Image: Pat GarofaloWith the calendar turning to 2010, the Associated Press took a look back at the first year of Labor Secretary Hilda Solis’ tenure, pointing out that “her aggressive moves to boost enforcement and crack down on businesses that violate workplace safety rules have sent employers scrambling to make sure they are following the rules.”

In many ways, Solis has completely reversed the course of the Labor Department that was set by her predecessor, Elaine Chao. And Solis’ crackdown has business lobbyists yearning for the days when Chao ran the show:

“Our members are concerned that the department is shifting its focus from compliance assistance back to more of the ‘gotcha’ or aggressive enforcement first approach,” said Karen Harned, executive director of the National Federation of Independent Business’ small business legal center…Chao has claimed that success was the result of cooperating with businesses to help them understand the myriad regulations. Keith Smith, a spokesman for the National Association of Manufacturers, said his members “want to build upon [Chao’s] progress and recognize what’s working.”

Of course, what worked for big business didn’t work at all for workers, as Chao’s Labor Department spent eight years “walking away from its regulatory function across a range of issues, including wage and hour law and workplace safety.”

Consider some of Chao’s legacy. The Government Accountability Office found that her Department “did an inadequate job of investigating complaints by low-wage workers who alleged that their employers were stiffing them for overtime, or failing to pay the minimum wage.” In one survey, 68 percent of low-income workers reported a pay violation in the previous week alone.

The Department’s own inspector general blamed “a lack of management emphasis on worker safety” for unsafe conditions at mines leading to a jump in worker deaths, while fines for workplace safety violations fell so low that employers began “factoring them in as part of their cost of doing business rather than complying with labor laws.” In all, “workers lose $19 billion in wages and benefits through illegal practices, nearly 6,000 American workers die on the job, and at least 50,000 workers die due to occupational disease” each year.

Solis, meanwhile, “slapped the largest fine in [Department] history on oil giant BP PLC for failing to fix safety problems after a 2005 explosion at its Texas City refinery.” She is hiring 250 additional wage-theft inspectors, and “started a new program that scrutinizes business records to make sure worker injury and illness reports are accurate.”

Labor Department staffers were so disgruntled under Chao that they threw a “good-riddance party” to cheer her departure. But for big business, Chao’s tenure meant acting with impunity and facing puny fines on the rare occasions that that were caught, and they’d like to go back.

*This post originally appeared in The Wonk Room on January 4, 2009. Reprinted with permission from the author.

About the Author: Pat Garofalo is the Economics Researcher/Blogger for WonkRoom.org at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. His writing has also appeared in The Nation, The Guardian, the Washington Examiner, and at New Deal 2.0.

Hilda Solis’ Approach is a Departure From the Policies of Predecessor Elaine Chao

Monday, January 4th, 2010

Image: Richard NegriThis is an AP story written by SAM HANANEL. I am reposting to UnionReview.com with the hope of spreading the news.

Soon after she became the nation’s labor secretary, Hilda Solis warned corporate America there was “a new sheriff in town.”

Less than a year into her tenure, that figurative badge of authority is unmistakable. Her aggressive moves to boost enforcement and crack down on businesses that violate workplace safety rules have sent employers scrambling to make sure they are following the rules.

The changes are a departure from the policies of Solis’ predecessor, Elaine Chao. They follow through on President Barack Obama’s campaign promise to boost funding for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, increase enforcement and safeguard workers in dangerous industries.

Solis made a splash in October when OSHA slapped the largest fine in its history on oil giant BP PLC for failing to fix safety problems after a 2005 explosion at its Texas City refinery.

Garnering less attention, she just finished hiring 250 new investigators to protect workers from being cheated out of wage and overtime pay. She also started a new program that scrutinizes business records to make sure worker injury and illness reports are accurate. And she is proposing new standards to protect workers from industrial dust explosions — an effort the Bush administration had long resisted.

Some business groups say they prefer a more cooperative approach between government and businesses — what the Bush administration called “compliance assistance.”

“Our members are concerned that the department is shifting its focus from compliance assistance back to more of the ‘gotcha’ or aggressive enforcement first approach,” said Karen Harned, executive director of the National Federation of Independent Business’ small business legal center.

Other business leaders point out that the rate of workplace deaths and injuries actually fell to record lows in the previous administration, while the agency also helped employees collect a record amount of back pay for overtime and minimum wage violations. Chao has claimed that success was the result of cooperating with businesses to help them understand the myriad regulations.

Keith Smith, a spokesman for the National Association of Manufacturers, said his members “want to build upon that progress and recognize what’s working.”

But a November report from the Government Accountability Office suggested there is widespread underreporting of workplace safety issues. Investigators cited evidence that some employers pressure workers not to report illnesses and injuries and urged OSHA to be more aggressive in verifying business records.

Labor Department spokesman Jaime Zapata said the idea of helping businesses understand the rules remains an important part of the agency’s strategy, along with stepped-up enforcement. Solis plans to hire 100 new OSHA inspectors next year.

“Compliance assistance was not a creation of the last administration,” Zapata said.

The changes have drawn praise from organized labor leaders who spent millions to help get Obama elected. Solis, a former California congresswoman and daughter of immigrant parents who were both union members, is a favorite of labor unions and a longtime advocate for workers’ rights.

“We will not rest until the law is followed by every employer, and each worker is treated and compensated fairly,” Solis said last month as she described a new national public awareness campaign to make sure workers know their rights on the job.

The massive fine against BP certainly caught the public’s attention, but other businesses are also paying a steep price for violating safety rules.

Two months into the new fiscal year, OSHA has already cited six companies for “egregious” violations that carry the highest penalties. There were only four such egregious cases in all of the previous year.

Solis said her agency this year will tackle 90 new rules and regulations next year. One change would give workers more information about how their pay is computed. Another would make employers disclose whether they sought advice from anti-union labor consultants.

*This post originally appeared in The Union Review on January 2, 2009. Reprinted with permission from the author.

About the Author: Richard Negri is the founder of UnionReview.com and is the Online Manager for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

Help Wanted: A Secretary of Labor Who Cares About Workers

Tuesday, October 28th, 2008

We need a Labor Secretary in the mold of Francis Perkins, whose top priority was to help the working man.

In recent days, colleagues have asked me to write about the near-collapse of the economy. My first response was to decline — recognizing all too well that I, like most of our nation’s leaders, was not entirely clear about what was going on. I’ve always been a big believer that wisdom is about knowing when to keep your mouth shut (or fingers away from the keyboard). As Proverbs 17:28 says, “Even a fool, when he keeps silent, is counted wise. When he shuts his lips, he is thought to be discerning.”

Although I must admit that I am still not completely clear about what all has occurred and has not occurred, I am more convinced than ever that we need a Secretary of Labor who cares about workers and who will at least try to address issues faced by workers. Unfortunately for the nation, we have a Secretary of Labor who is Missing in Action.

When the unemployment figures came out last week, Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao issued a one-sentence statement: “Today’s employment report provides further evidence of the need for the House of Representatives to pass an economic rescue package today, before it adjourns, which will protect Main Street America and mitigate further job loss,” said U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao. That’s it. That’s all she could muster on the subject.

The day before, she’d given a lengthy speech to the Chamber of Commerce decrying the “Europeanization” of the workplace and denigrating unions. Meanwhile, her Wage and Hour Administrator, Alexander Passantino, claims the Division is doing a great job enforcing wage and hour laws. I’m sure the Education and Training Administrator says the agency is doing a great job there too. Throughout Chao’s speeches over the last year she’s been claiming what a great job the Bush Administration is doing for working people. Well, the emperor has no clothes.

In the midst of the economic meltdown, dramatically rising unemployment figures, military-style immigration raids in workplaces, employers stealing wages like there’s no tomorrow, young people unprepared for today’s jobs — let alone tomorrow’s — and assaults against unions and the right to organize at an all-time high, we need a Secretary of Labor who sees it as his or her job to protect workers. The Secretary of Labor must be the preacher in the bully pulpit for better working conditions for all the nation’s workers. Even if she can’t do anything, she could reach out and talk with workers.

Frances Perkins.

Frances Perkins was the Secretary of Labor appointed by Franklin D Roosevelt in 1932 to help him address the economic crisis left him by eight years of Coolidge and Hoover leadership.

She came to Washington, D.C. with a mission — in her words, to serve God, FDR and the working man. She came with a vision. She wanted to get people back to work, pass national standards for wage payment, and establish a social security system. She and her colleagues created the jobs programs that built many of our nation’s parks and bridges, she passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, the most comprehensive wage protection law in the nation, and she helped design the Social Security System.

Learning from the lessons of Frances Perkins, here’s what the new Secretary of Labor should do:

First, advocate stopping the workplace immigration raids. When Frances Perkins took over, the Department of Labor was responsible for workplace raids and she stopped them immediately. They were wrong then and they are wrong today.

Although Homeland Security, not Labor, has jurisdiction for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Labor Secretary should speak forcefully against this intimidation of workers that is a gross waste of taxpayer money.

Second, enforce the wage and hour laws in meaningful ways. Employers are stealing billions of dollars annually from the paychecks of millions of workers. Wage theft is a national crisis and the Department of Labor is asleep at the wheel. Just as an unregulated banking industry has brought forth catastrophe, unregulated workplaces have enabled employers to steal wages from workers on a mass scale. In 1941, Frances Perkins had 1,500 investigators in the field visiting 12 percent of the country’s workplaces to ensure that employers were paying people legally. Today, with more than 10 times as many workers covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act, there are half as many investigators. Employers know that the chances of getting caught stealing wages is minuscule and that if they are caught, the consequences are insignificant. The Secretary must go after wage theft. What better economic stimulus for the society than workers getting the wages they are owed and spending them in their communities?

Third, lead the charge in supporting unemployed workers. Unemployment insurance should be available widely to workers and job creation strategies should be pursued aggressively both through public incentives for private job creation and public jobs programs. Let’s create those green jobs everyone is talking about.

Fourth, commit to developing the 21st-century supports America’s workers need. During Perkins’s time, she focused on putting in place social security for America’s workers. Today, we need a national health care program. Forty-seven million workers and their families without health care is not in the best interest of workers or the nation as a whole. The Secretary of Labor should play a role in guaranteeing health care to all Americans.

Fifth, support the fundamental rights of all workers to organize into unions of their choice. Although Perkins wasn’t the first choice of labor unions for secretary, she overcame their hesitations with her steadfast support for workers’ rights to organize in the workplace. Elaine Chao, in contrast, has used her public voice to attack the Employee Free Choice Act, the most significant labor law reform to come along in decades.

When the economy is in shambles, it is America’s workers who take the biggest hit. Perhaps in the coming weeks and months, we will all understand better what has happened to our economy. But as we move forward as a nation in addressing the crisis, we need a Secretary of Labor who knows workers, cares for their concerns and speaks up for them. Our current Secretary of Labor is missing in action. We need to put the Labor back in Secretary of Labor.

About the Author: Kim Bobo, Founder and Executive Director of Interfaith Worker Justice, writes the “Dispatches from the Workplace” column for the online magazine Religion Dispatches. She is the author of Wage Theft in America: Why Millions of Working Americans Are Not Getting Paid — And What We Can Do About It (forthcoming in December from the New Press) and the co-author of Organizing for Social Change, the best-selling manual on progressive activism in the U.S.

This article originally appeared on the God’s Politics Blog (www.godspolitics.com).

A Labor Day Attack on Farmworkers

Friday, September 5th, 2008

Amid all the hype of political conventions, analysis of the Republican VP pick and Labor Day celebrations for the rest of the country, the Bush Administration will launch an attack on the nation’s farmworkers.

Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao and Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, at any moment, will announce extensive changes to the H-2A guestworker program, slashing wages and reducing worker protections for hundreds of thousands of our nation’s farmworkers. These policy changes deserve our attention.

The H-2A program is a temporary agricultural guestworker program that permits employers to apply for permission to hire foreign labor for jobs lasting ten months or less. To bring in H-2A guestworkers, employers must show that they cannot find U.S. workers who want the jobs. These will be the most far-reaching changes in the laws regulating guestworker programs since 1942. If the changes are finalized, as we expect them to be next week, and take effect, this Administration will have returned us to an era of agricultural labor exploitation that many thought ended over 65 years ago.

What a Labor Day gift to farmworkers!

The Administration will finalize plans that were published several months ago. They called for cutting wage rates and wage protections for both domestic and foreign workers, minimizing recruitment obligations inside the U.S., ending the requirement to provide workers with free housing that meets federal and state safety requirements, curtailing or eliminating transportation reimbursement payments, and removing much of the government oversight that is supposed to deter and remedy illegal employer conduct. There is much more and it’s almost all terrible.

U.S. farmworkers will be denied jobs and forced to quit due to the onerous conditions. The aim of the Administration is to create an endless supply of guestworkers who our government will allow to be exploited at low wage wages and suffer grueling productivity standards that U.S. workers cannot afford to accept. By enticing employers to use vulnerable guestworkers at less than the cost of U.S. workers, the Administration theorizes that it will wean employers from hiring undocumented workers.

This low-wage, low-road strategy is not just morally reprehensible, it is economically destructive. Most farmworkers are undocumented. The Administration’s proposal does absolutely nothing to address that reality. They are already here doing this back-breaking work. Most of them are law-abiding people seeking to support their families, embodying those All-American values such as “self-sacrifice” and “hard-work”. Employers need them. The Bush Administration cannot make them go away.

For decades government commissions have told agriculture that it must stabilize its workforce and improve productivity by increasing wages and modernizing its labor practices, rather than relying on new waves of exploitable foreign labor to overcome high employee turnover.

We call on Congress, including Senator McCain and Senator Obama, to do whatever it takes to stop the Administration from issuing its planned changes to the H-2A guestworker program. There are reasonable alternatives that have won bipartisan support. Both Sen. McCain and Sen. Obama support those alternatives.

During this Labor Day season, amid the election year hype, we must think about the people toiling to put food on our tables. If the Administration issues the final regulations, as we expect they will any day, we plan to ask you to tell Congress to prevent those regulations from every taking effect.

For more information on the H-2A regulatory changes, and news as it develops, please see the H-2A News page on the Farmworker Justice website.

About the Author: Bruce Goldstein joined Farmworker Justice as a staff attorney in 1988, then served as Co-Executive Director starting in September 1995, and was named Executive Director in July 2005. At Farmworker Justice, Bruce has focused on litigation and advocacy on immigration issues and labor law, with a special emphasis on the H-2A temporary foreign agricultural worker program. Bruce’s activities on “guestworker” issues have included litigation against private employers and the government, advocacy in administrative agencies and Congress, training of lawyers and paralegals, building nation-wide coalitions, advising grassroots organizations, and testifying before Congress. Bruce has also sought to address the problem of “farm labor contractors” and other labor intermediaries used by farming operations, often in an attempt to avoid responsibility for complying with labor laws. Bruce received his bachelor’s degree in 1977 from the New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University, and his law degree from Washington University in St. Louis (1980). He has worked at the National Labor Relations Board, at a legal services office in East St. Louis, Illinois, and in private law practice concentrating in labor law, personal injury and civil rights.

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