When two dozen advocacy groups put out their report calling for reform of the state labor department on Wednesday, they did not expect change would come so soon.
Today, two days after the coalition laid out its plans for better worker protection, Gov.-elect Eliot Spitzer announced that he will appoint a new state labor commissioner.
Patricia Smith, who has headed the attorney general’s labor bureau since 1999, will take over the reins of the Department of Labor (DOL). With Smith at its helm, the labor bureau has taken up dozens of costly civil suit investigations to prosecute employers who fail to pay the minimum wage or violate other workers’ rights. (See Waging Bitter Battle Just to Get Paid $6.75, City Limits Weekly, Nov. 13, 2006.) Labor Department Chief Investigator Charles DeSiervo said it is only in this past year that such investigations have been made available to his department.
Annette Bernhardt, an author of the new report, entitled “Protecting New York’s Workers,” and deputy director of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law, called Smith’s appointment “huge news.”
“As head of the attorney general’s labor bureau, she took the lead in developing innovative proactive strategies to rein in violations in low wage industries,” Bernhardt said. “This will be a great opportunity to bring those strategies to scale at the state level.”
While the Department of Labor told reporters that the department already employs many of the report’s suggestions, by Friday many were excited about change under a new administration.
“This report is very much about looking forward, about what are the opportunities that we have with a governor who as attorney general [understood] the issue of workplace violations,” Bernhardt said. “It’s about the possibility of this state really stepping up to the plate.”
The 17-page report is a product of more than six months of work by the Campaign to End Wage Theft, a coalition including the New York Immigration Coalition, MFY Legal Services, Latin American Integration Center and the Taxi Workers Alliance. It centers around six recommendations instructing DOL to investigate complaints and pursue all legal remedies more fully; systematically and proactively investigate low-wage industries; partner with community and labor groups; improve responsiveness to immigrant laborers regardless of their legal status; improve coordination between state and local agencies; and make the DOL more accessible, accountable and transparent.
Bernhardt said the amount of attention paid to the report last week indicates that the struggles of low-wage workers are still a secret to many New Yorkers.
“The fact that it got so much coverage really tells us this is an issue that is still news to a lot of people,” Bernhardt said. “The advocates on the ground have known that there is a growing problem, but in the public the issues are still not well known.”
Spitzer’s other nominees for top leadership positions can be viewed here.