[Marxism] Labor Dept. Accused of Straying from Enforcement

Greg McDonald sabocat59 at mac.com
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  
them inaccurate.

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  
Obama administration."

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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