Overdue Confirmations Crucial for Department of Labor

Kim Bobo

Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, who faces a national crisis of wage theft, is working without her key enforcement staff.

Last spring, President Obama announced nominations for solicitor of labor and wage and hour administrator — the two most important positions for enforcing the country’s wage laws — but the Senate has yet to confirm either nominee. On Wednesday, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (HELP) will vote on these critical Department of Labor (DOL) nominees. Given the crisis of wage theft, the Senate should swiftly confirm M. Patricia Smith as solicitor of labor and Lorelei Boylan as wage and hour administrator. (Editor’s note: The HELP committee confirmed Smith Wednesday, voting 10-7 along party lines.)

The DOL needs these leaders confirmed so it can crack down on wage theft, a crime wave that flies largely under the radar. Employers steal wages from their workers in numerous ways - by not paying minimum wage or overtime, going into time records and simply deleting overtime hours, refusing to pay last paychecks after workers quit or are terminated, misclassifying employees as independent contractors, not paying the prevailing wage to workers on federal contracts or sometimes not paying workers at all for their labor.

The recent report Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers,” published by the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois-Chicago, UCLA, and the National Employment Law Project, found that the average low-wage worker in New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles has had $51 stolen out of average weekly earnings of $339 in 2008, or 15 percent of their wages. The findings, based on a landmark survey of 4,387 workers, are representative of front-line workers (excluding managers, professional or technical workers) in low-wage industries in the three cities - a population of about 1.64 million workers, or 15 percent of the combined workforce of the three cities. Clearly, we need a strong and effective federal DOL to enforce our wage and hour laws and create innovative programs to deter employers from stealing wages

After the HELP Committee held confirmation hearings for Smith last spring, Sens. Michael Enzi (R-Wyoming) and Johnny Isakson (R-Georgia) attempted to derail her nomination, writing letters to President Obama requesting that he withdraw it. (Editor’s note: After the committee approved Smith Wednesday, Enzi pledged to place a hold on the nomination to delay a confirmation vote on the Senate floor) The primary policy issue raised by Smith’s opponents is that her agency established collaborative partnerships with businesses and community organizations to prevent wage theft - programs that her opponents find objectionable. For example, Smith created the Bureau of Immigrant Workers’ Rights, which strengthened strategic enforcement and changed the culture of the Department by working with unions, community and immigrant rights groups to educate business and workers and keep our most vulnerable workers from being exploited.

Smith, who served as commissioner of the New York State Department of Labor, has been a dynamic and effective labor advocate for over 30 years. She was a driving force in overhauling the New York State DOL to focus on vigorously protecting workers and on ensuring that employers compete on a level playing field. Thanks to Smith’s leadership, the Department’s web site allows businesses, workers and worker advocates to enter the name of any establishment in the state of New York to find out if it has been found by the DOL to violate wage laws. In 2007, her first year as commissioner, the Department collected 37 percent more in wage underpayments and 20 percent more in fines than in 2006.

Boylan served under Smith in the New York State DOL as director of Strategic Enforcement in the Labor Standards Division, where she was the hands-on manager of the agency’s collaborative partnerships. As the federal DOL’s wage and hour administrator, she would oversee federal efforts to enforce the Fair Labor Standards Act, which includes minimum wage, overtime and child labor protections, as well as laws that provide that workers under federal contracts must be paid the prevailing wage for their occupations in the region where they work.

We have a crisis of wage theft in Chicago and around the nation. These two, fine, public servants have the perfect credentials to lead the Department of Labor in fighting wage theft. They deserve immediate confirmation for the good of all the nation’s workers.

Editor’s note: This piece originally appeared at Truthout​.org

Kim Bobo, founder and executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice and a columnist for Religion Dispatches, is the author of Wage Theft in America: Why Millions of Working Americans Are Not Getting Paid -- And What We Can Do About It (The New Press) and co-author of Organizing for Social Change, the best-selling organizing manual in the country.
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