[Marxism] Labor Dept. Accused of Straying from Enforcement
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Sat Dec 13 06:18:44 MST 2008
Labor Dept. Accused of Straying From Enforcement
By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 1, 2008; A02
The next labor secretary will be taking charge of an agency widely
criticized for walking away from its regulatory function across a
range of issues, including wage and hour law and workplace safety.
"My view is that this is a deeply troubled department," said Scott
Lilly, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, who has
written several reports critical of the agency's operation under the
Bush administration. "As bad as the personnel situation may be in
many departments, I think it tends to be worse in the Labor
Department than in most places. "I think you've got people embedded
there who are philosophically hostile to the mission of the agency."
There are few federal agencies where the ideological differences
separating many Democrats and Republicans play out more plainly.
Labor is one of the government's largest regulatory enforcement
agencies, overseeing issues from overtime payments and pension
regulations to workplace safety and training programs. The agency has
a total budget of $50.4 billion and 16,800 employees.
Many businesses say the agency's enforcement regime often becomes
onerous under Democratic administrations, leading to burdensome
reporting requirements and a type of punitive enforcement that they
say stifles economic growth. They applaud Republican administrations
for focusing more on helping companies abide by the law than on
penalizing those who violate it. So they are bracing for a big shift.
"With the new administration, I think you are going to a shift from
compliance assistance to pure enforcement," said Randel K. Johnson, a
vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Labor activists say that focusing so closely on the concerns of
employers shortchanges workers and that a shift in emphasis is long
overdue. Under President Bush, they say, the pendulum has swung far
away from enforcement, leaving workers vulnerable to dangerous
workplaces and with little protection from exploitive employers.
In July, the Government Accountability Office issued a report
alleging that the Labor 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. That report followed another that found troubling
inconsistencies in how the department handled individual worker
complaints. Department officials have disputed both reports, calling
Still, they caught the attention of President-elect Barack Obama, who
while campaigning in July fired off a letter to Labor Secretary
Elaine L. Chao expressing "serious concern" that the agency was not
fulfilling its enforcement mission.
"It is important that the department put procedures into place that
will lead to improvements in the enforcement of workers' rights,"
Obama wrote. "This is the core mission of the department and failing
to adequately enforce the Fair Labor Standards Act is unacceptable."
This was not the first time Labor has been accused of not living up
to its regulatory mandate. A report last year by the department's
inspector general found that mine safety regulators did not conduct
federally required inspections at more than 14 percent of the
country's 731 underground coal mines during the previous year -- when
the number of worker deaths in mining accidents more than doubled to 47.
The Bush administration's budget constraints and a lack of management
emphasis on worker safety are responsible for the lapses, the report
"Bigger than any legislative change that may be out there is the
question of funding," said Mike Asensio, a partner in the law firm
Baker Hostetler who specializes in labor law. "The criticism is that
because funding for enforcement has been cut, they don't have enough
investigators out in the field."
Those problems extend to the Occupational Safety and Health
Administration, which oversees most workplace safety. It has seen its
budget shrink each year Bush has been in office when inflation is
taken into account, according to an analysis by the watchdog group
OMB Watch. And while the overall budget fell by 5 percent, the
enforcement budget is down 8 percent for Bush's tenure.
That decline continued a trend that saw the rate of OSHA workplace
inspections reduced by nearly two-thirds between 1980 and 2005.
Department officials have defended their emphasis, saying voluntary
compliance has led to steady reductions in on-the-job injuries.
One area where the department became a more rigorous enforcer was in
the oversight of labor unions, critics say. New rules required more
rigorous financial reports from about 20,000 union locals.
The Bush administration said the reporting requirements better
informed workers how unions spent their money. Critics differed. The
administration "used that as a tool to weaken and discredit organized
labor," Lilly said.
During the campaign, Obama promised to be supportive of organized
labor and to step up enforcement of workplace safety regulations. He
also said he would work to expand the reach of the Family and Medical
Leave Act, which allows workers to take time off to care for
relatives. He also has voiced support for the rights of workers to
strike without having to worry about being permanently replaced.
"The Bush administration had abdicated its responsibility to protect
workers," said Thea Lee, policy director of the AFL-CIO. "We have
high hopes that we will see a dramatic change of direction under the
Moreover, union officials said they are hoping the agency -- which
has been a backwater in some administrations -- will have a strong
voice in the administration's economic policy, speaking up for the
workers in a fast-shifting economy.
"It is time for this country to come to grips with the fact that this
is not our grandfather and father's economy," said Andy Stern,
president of the Service Employees International Union. "How do you
deal with the fact that my son will have nine jobs between the age of
22 and 35, and pensions and health care are built around the idea of
somebody having one job? The Labor Department has to find new
policies and new ways to think about work."
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