We are a nation of law. And on Labor Day, we should celebrate the laws that protect our nation’s workers and their families – their rights to a safe and healthy workplace, to be paid a minimum wage, and to properly-managed health and retirement accounts, to name just a few.
But laws on the books are meaningless without strong enforcement. That’s why every agency at the Department of Labor is dedicated to making sure that working families can count on these protections.
Most of the Department’s enforcement begins with our worker protection agencies. The Office of the Solicitor works hand in hand with these agencies throughout the enforcement process – helping shape rules, supporting investigations, and representing the Secretary in litigation.
I’ve spent my entire legal career protecting workers, and over thirty years, I have unfortunately discovered that everyday enforcement efforts often don’t deter the worst violators. That’s why as Solicitor my goal is to support the agencies’ use of innovative enforcement efforts that allow us to reach the “bad actors.” My office is working to give new muscle to our nation’s worker protections.
We work with DOL’s agencies to tackle the complicated cases, not just the easy ones. We are actively supporting the Wage and Hour Division’s industry initiatives, which aim to increase compliance with wage laws in industries that employ vulnerable workers, which are also rife with violations. We provide WHD with the legal research and advice they need to ensure that employers cannot evade liability by misclassifying their workers as independent contractors instead of employees or by using subcontractors to make the chain of command too complicated to unravel.
Every day the Solicitor’s office is pursuing novel strategies in order to be more effective by working smarter. In June, we worked with OSHA to file an “enterprise-wide” OSHA complaint against the United States Postal Service, demanding that the agency correct a safety hazard affecting post offices around the country. The complaint marked the first time the Department has sought enterprise-wide relief as a remedy in an OSHA complaint, and the beginning of a new strategy that will be implemented across the Department. By requesting enterprise-wide relief we can ensure that workers at multiple work sites are protected from a hazard as soon as possible.
To be sure, pushing the law means that we won’t always win. But my goal is to make sure we take every opportunity to protect workers. Sometimes no matter how hard we try, the laws in place simply do not account for on-the-ground realities. In fact, we recently lost a case involving 29 mine safety violations at an underground mine because the law in place to protect miners sets an unrealistic standard for what constitutes a “pattern of violations.” In these situations, we continue to support legislation that will help fix the broken system and better protect miners and all workers.
In the end, it’s not simply having laws on the books that counts, but whether those laws are keeping workers safe in their workplaces, getting them paid the wages they’re owed, and assuring that they can count on their benefits when they need them. The Office of the Solicitor is working hand in hand with DOL agencies to make this the reality across the nation.
M.Patricia Smith is the United States Solicitor of Labor.