With 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.