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Obama top labor nominee’s testimony questioned
President Obama’s choice for the U.S. Labor Department’s top law enforcement job created a first-of-its-kind program in New York that deputized unions and advocacy groups to visit private businesses and report wage violations to the government, an initiative that has raised concerns holding up her nomination.
M. Patricia Smith told senators vetting her appointment to be the Labor Department’s solicitor that her “wage watch” pilot program in New York was created over the last year to “engage groups to help us with education” and not to let the private groups conduct labor investigations.
But internal memos obtained by Republican aides on the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee show Ms. Smith’s state labor agency in New York actually referred to the union and group participants as “enforcers,” The Washington Times has learned.
Businesses and some Republicans are concerned Ms. Smith’s program - and the philosophy behind it - amount to an “unprecedented and unwarranted” intrusion on private business, and could empower unions to use their role in the government program to improperly pressure companies to accept contract concessions or unionization of their workforce.
Sen. Mike Enzi, the top Republican on the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee, called this week on Mr. Obama to withdraw Ms. Smith’s nomination, accusing her of misleading the committee about the true nature of the “wage watch” program in New York.
“If it was her intention to mislead the Senate, then I must oppose her nomination,” the Wyoming senator wrote Mr. Obama in a letter obtained by the Times. “If she unintentionally gave inaccurate statements to the Senate, then I question her ability to manage a large operation, since she does not have a clear understanding of what is taking place in her own department in New York.”
Ms. Smith declined to comment through a spokesman. The White House had no comment on Mr. Enzi’s letter and referred questions to the Labor Department, which released a statement by Secretary Hilda Solis that defended Ms. Smith as a “tough, fair and innovative” leader but did not specifically address the concerns about her testimony.
Ms. Smith forged a “well deserved reputation for being a tough enforcer of the law” in New York and “our nation could ask for no better solicitor of labor than this,” Ms. Solis said. “Throughout her career, she has fostered collaboration among workers, the community and employers who are put at a disadvantage when their competitors refuse to comply with basic employee protections.”
When she was questioned during her nomination hearing about whether she would consider such a program at the federal level, Ms. Smith said, “No, we have not had any discussions of that.”
Ms. Smith has served as the head of New York’s Labor Commission and one of her top state regulators in New York that oversaw the “wage watch” program, Lorelei Boylan, also has been nominated by Mr. Obama as administrator of the Wage and Hour Division at the U.S. Labor Department.
On Nov. 28, Ms. Boylan wrote a message to coworkers, which was copied to Ms. Smith, on the subject of training groups in the wage watch program. It said, “The one day session will not turn the enforcers into labor law experts but will assist them in identifying labor law violations and make the referrals of greater value.”
Leo Rofales, a spokesman for New York’s labor department, said groups that participate in the pilot program do so on a volunteer basis and cannot request financial books from employers. He also said state regulators have “made it very clear” to participants to avoid potential conflicts of interest. He said while outside groups can make referrals, only state authorities will decide whether to conduct investigations.
“Their role is education and referrals,” he said. “It’s not to ask for records and it’s not be Department of Labor staff.”
When Ms. Smith announced the wage watch program, she said the idea was for community groups to improve labor law compliance by giving information on wage laws to workers and managers in supermarkets, laundromats, nail salons and other businesses. When the groups find “serious violations,” they’ll have a formal point of contact in the labor enforcement offices to make referrals, she said.
“New York Wage Watch will increase labor law compliance by giving regular people a formal role in creating lawful workplaces statewide, and thereby improving the quality of life in their communities,” she said.
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