Don't Bankrupt Labor Department's Mission, Wages Chief Tells Trump Nominee
David Weil, the chief enforcer of the nation’s wage and hour laws, is worried that the fast food executive Donald Trump has nominated to be labor secretary will undermine efforts to crack down on widespread wage violations.
“I obviously am concerned about things I hear,” Weil said, voicing apprehension that labor secretary nominee Andy Puzder, chief executive officer of CKE Restaurants – the company that runs the Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr fast-food chains – might be far from zealous in enforcing the nation’s minimum wage and overtime laws.
“I would hope, I would expect as a base, that any incoming secretary of labor understands there are certain principles about what this department does that are really sacrosanct – the notion of fairness embedded in our agency, paying people for the work they do, is something we support,” Weil said.
He added: “If they do things that are attempts to just undermine the department’s mission, I think that is something they should be called on.”
For years, Puzder, whose fast-food company has occasionally been ordered to pay back wages because of labor violations, has been a fierce critic of government regulations and proposals to raise the minimum wage.
New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman described Puzder’s appointment as “cruel and baffling” when Trump first announced it, and said that CKE “stole” from low-wage workers.
Weil said he hoped Trump would make sure that his labor department promotes workers’ interests. “The president-elect campaigned to help a set of workers who felt they were left behind on the economy,” Weil said. “My agency helps a lot of people who were left behind. A certain part of the job requires a responsible use of your resources” to help American workers who face wage violations or dangerous working conditions – “and if they fail to hold to that standard, they should be held accountable.”
Before becoming head of the labor department’s wage and hour division in 2014, Weil was an economics professor at Boston University, writing several respected books and papers on workplace trends, wage violations and how to improve enforcement. In an interview, Weil asserted that not just the federal government but also labor unions, other worker advocacy groups and state and local governments should push to make sure that wage and hour laws are enforced.
He sees an important role for the public too. “You want the public to demand to make sure that products are made in compliance with the law,” he said.
Weil was too diplomatic to cite Puzder by name, but he voiced repeated concerns about a labor department being run by a corporate CEO. “Going forward, if the federal government doesn’t discharge the department’s function as much or undercuts that function, then the roles of these other organizations become all the more critical because these other forces [behind wage theft] are still out there,” Weil said.
Weil said wage violations remained prevalent even though Barack Obama’s labor department had increased back wages collected in enforcement actions by 34% since 2008. This past fiscal year, the wage and hour division collected $266m in back wages for 283,000 workers. With strong support from Tom Perez, the current labor secretary, Weil adopted a policy of targeted enforcement – rather than relying mainly on worker complaints – to uncover more violations and help more help low-wage workers in industries such as janitorial work and fast food. Back-pay awardees receive on average three and a half weeks of pay, Weil said.
“I am the last person to go on to the deck of the aircraft carrier to say, ‘Mission accomplished,’” he said. “We have a long way to go to fix wage theft. This is a pervasive problem in the economy.”
As head of the wage and hour division, Weil issued guidelines to help police what he said was the widespread, illegal misclassification of workers as independent contractors – a practice that many companies use to avoid providing employee benefits and paying overtime when people work more than 40 hours a week. With e-commerce rapidly expanding, Weil said he feared increased wage theft among the many small trucking and delivery companies that help Amazon and other internet retailers make quick deliveries.
Weil said he hoped that the regulation-averse Trump and congressional Republicans would not cut the number of wage and hour investigators, which number only 1,000 in a country with 7.3m business establishments. He said the number of investigators was smaller than it was 40 years ago under Jimmy Carter.
One of Weil’s proudest accomplishments was pushing through the rule that extended overtime pay to more than 4 million additional workers, a rule he said would help many of the working-class voters who backed Trump. Weil expressed fears that Trump would kill or cripple the rule, but he said it would take some time for Trump to scrap the measure because of administrative law requirements. A federal district court judge in Texas has suspended the rule, but Weil voiced confidence it would be upheld on appeal.
Weil said he also increasingly pushed a powerful weapon – debarment – to punish large-scale lawbreakers and to send a message to other companies. On Friday, the wage and hour division announced it would seek to bar Restaurant Associates, the contractor that runs the cafeterias in the US Senate, from receiving any future federal contracts because it and one of its contractors were found to have cheated 674 cafeteria workers out of more than $1m.
Business groups have long criticized Weil. Matt Haller, senior vice-president for public affairs with the International Franchise Association, said: “Rather than enforce the law as written or upheld by the courts, he chose to make it up as he went along, using charges by his own agency and his trial lawyer and union friends to scare companies into compliance.”
Randel Johnson, a senior vice-president with the US Chamber of Commerce, said Weil had an obsolete vision of the workplace and “his judgment was clouded by a fixation on the traditional 40-hour, employer-employee relationship as the only appropriate model for the workplace”.
But Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group for low-wage workers, applauded Weil, saying he combined “unparalleled knowledge and experience in wage and hour enforcement with deep commitment” to helping workers. “Businesses didn’t like him for that, but for working people, he’s as good as it gets,” Owens said.
Weil said raising the minimum wage was an important part of Obama’s and the labor department’s unfinished agenda. “It’s absurd – we’re almost in 2017 and the federal minimum wage is just $7.25 an hour,” he said. “I think the pressure will continue to raise it.”