By Bendix Anderson
After years of relative silence, federal officials are making bold new promises to protect workers rights — and backing those promises up with strong actions.
“I’m here to tell you that your president, your secretary of labor and this department will not allow anyone to be denied his or her rightful pay,” said U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, speaking at Chicago’s Jane Addams Hull-House Museum April 1.
Solis was there to unveil the Department of Labor’s new “We Can Help,” campaign to inform workers about their pay rights and to put a stop to wage theft, including workers who are in the U.S. illegally. The campaign has already created a series of 30-second public service announcements in several languages including celebrities Jimmy Smits and Esai Morales that will run on television and the Internet.
Solis herself stars in one the ads, repeating her statement from Hull-House and backed up by a rock-and-roll band singing: “We’ll get you what you’re due… We’re always there for you.” The ad includes the Web address for the “We Can Help” campaign and a toll-free number that people can call for information on workers rights: (866) 487-9243.
In the last year, DOL has also put new resources towards enforcing worker protections like minimum wage and overtime laws. Both the ARRA and the President’s budget give new funding to agencies charged with enforcing workplace safety and health laws and the Fair Labor Standards Act. DOL has already added 250 new field investigators to its staff, an increase of about a third.
The new investigators are likely to have their work cut out for them. “Working Without Laws,” a 2008 study of low-wage workers in New York City found that more than a fifth of workers surveyed were paid less than minimum wage and about a quarter were being deprived of overtime pay.
“It is appropriate and correct that vulnerable workers receive what the law promises,” says Solis. “No employer [should] gain a marketplace advantage by using threats or coercion to cheat workers from their rightful wages.”
Labor advocates applaud top DOL appointments starting with Solis herself, who has a long history of working to protect workers rights. “She was a breath of fresh air,” says Richard Weiss, communication director for the Mason Tenders District Council, a district council of five unions in the New York City area representing nearly 15,000 workers.
DOL’s new Solicitor, Patricia Smith, also receives high marks from labor groups. The former New York State’s Commissioner of Labor, Smith will provide DOL with legal advice to ensure that the nation’s labor laws are “forcefully and fairly applied,” according to DOL’s website.