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Solis Beefs Up Worker Protection Enforcement Staffs

The enforcement emphasis is designed to give the department a new orientation after what the Obama administration portrays as eight years of lax oversight during former President George W. Bush’s tenure.

September 3, 2009
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Labor Secretary Hilda Solis reiterated that keeping workers safe on the job and ensuring that they receive all the pay that’s due to them are priorities, as she approaches her first Labor Day as head of the agency.

In a brief conference call with reporters Thursday, September 3, Solis said that by 2010, the department will have 1,275 new inspectors at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and 980 investigators in the Wage and Hour Division. That's an increase of more than 400 enforcement staff.

The enforcement emphasis is designed to give the department a new orientation after what the Obama administration portrays as eight years of lax oversight during President George W. Bush’s tenure.

The Obama budget request to Congress asks for $1.7 billion for worker protection programs, a 10 percent increase over the previous fiscal year. In the first six months of the year, the department has recovered more than $82 million in back wages for 107,000 minimum-wage workers.

Earlier in the week, Deputy Labor Secretary Seth Harris summed up the agency’s mission for a Washington audience.

“The department of good jobs for everyone,” he said.

Solis defined a good job as one that is sustainable, safe and provides at least a middle-class wage. Protecting the physical well-being of workers is paramount, she said.

“Workplace safety is not only our responsibility, it’s our moral obligation,” Solis said.

But a major business organization charges that the labor agency—as well as the Democratic majorities in Congress—is simply looking for ways to gouge companies.

“The common theme is employers are bad,” said Randel Johnson, senior vice president for labor, immigration and employee benefits at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “Let’s go after employers and figure out where we can kick them on some violation.”

At the chamber’s Labor Day briefing on Thursday, September 3, Johnson displayed posters of dense workplace regulation texts to illustrate what he called their complexity.

“The reality is that no employer can comply with all facets of the law,” Johnson said. “It’s simply too complicated.”

Solis said that the department is reaching out to employers and employees to raise awareness about safety and wage protections. In a recent visit to Los Angeles, she met with immigrant workers in the service industry.

“We want to be a source of information through our education programs,” Solis said.

But her agency also intends to impose plenty of penalties in its quest for safer factories and other facilities.

“I will not be satisfied until there is no workplace death” due to a company’s failure to comply with federal safety regulations, she said.

—Mark Schoeff Jr.

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