March 20, 2009 The Pump Handle 0Comment

For the first second time in Department of Labor history, the Solicitor of Labor (SOL) will be a woman.*  Yesterday, the White House announced a handful of appointments, including M. Patricia Smith to the top attorney slot at DOL.   This position requires Senate confirmation.

Ms. Smith is the Commissioner of the New York State Department of Labor and co-chair of New York State’s Economic Security agency.  Prior to that, she served for 20 years in the Labor Bureau of the New York State Attorney General’s Office, including as its chief.  The Commission’s website highlights her efforts to address the needs of vulnerable workers.  It notes:

“By creating the Bureau of Immigrant Workers’ Rights and conducting more strategic enforcement we have changed the culture of the department through partnering with unions, labor and immigrant groups to target our enforcement efforts to keep our most vulnerable workers from being exploited. “

Just a quick Google search and it seems that Commissioner Smith devised some creative and aggressive approaches to ensure that workers are paid their legally earned wages.  In late January 2009, for example, she announced the “New York Wage Watch” initiative to

“…empower ordinary people to join the fight against wage theft” including subminimum wages, nonpayment of wages, failure to pay overtime, and tip stealing.

Her announcement raised the ire of five prominent trade associations who said the measure:

“…steps well over the boundaries of even the most constructive collaboration with community groups and advocates,” and 

“…sets a troubling precedent that could spread among the spectrum of state agencies.  We wonder how such an effort can create an atmosphere of anything other than vigilantism…”

If M. Patrica Smith plans to bring the same worker-centered advocacy to DOL’s enforcement programs, a new day may be dawning at MSHA, OSHA and ESA.

*Updated (2:55 pm): Thanks to a knowledgable Pump Handle reader for correctly my error and informing me that Ms. Carin A. Clauss was Solicitor of Labor during the Carter Administration.

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