Chao Defends Labor Dept. Tenure, Noting Safety and Health of Workers

Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao says her approach to her job was shaped by her experience as an immigrant, not by Republican ideology.
Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao says her approach to her job was shaped by her experience as an immigrant, not by Republican ideology. (By John Locher -- Las Vegas Review Journal Via Associated Press)
By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 25, 2008

Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao is the only Cabinet member to serve during President Bush's entire presidency, through nearly eight years marked by terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina, and long-running wars, including ideological battles.

But as the soft-spoken Chao's tenure winds down, she finds herself defending her legacy amid criticism from labor groups and government watchdogs who say the department has backed off of its vital regulatory functions during the Bush years.

The Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration has promulgated many fewer safety rules than in the past. The Government Accountability Office issued two reports last summer criticizing Labor for its enforcement of wage and hour laws. The agency has also been skewered for its enforcement of mine safety laws, and for imposing lower fines on firms found in violation of them.

Chao brushes such critiques aside as so much political rhetoric. "This department is probably the most partisan of all the departments," she said. "I think people have very different world views about this department and about what is best for the workforce."

She said that much of the criticism of her stewardship somehow misses the big picture: that workers have become safer under her tenure. "Our workers today [are] safer and healthier than they were eight years ago. The facts speak for themselves," she said in a recent interview.

Rather than focusing solely on enforcement, Chao said her agency has taken a "strategic approach" to workers' welfare that relies heavily on employer outreach and education. The approach is often at odds with what many labor advocates promote, she said, but the results have been record-low injury and illness rates for employees. The agency also boasts record recoveries of pay and pensions unfairly denied workers, she said.

"Together with our enforcement strategy has been a strategy of educational outreach," Chao said. "We want to make sure that workers know their rights and that employers know their obligations. That is the best way to protect workers."

Many labor advocates say the results could be even better if the agency had taken a tougher approach toward employers. They also accuse Chao of using the agency's regulatory power to hamstring organized labor with new financial reporting requirements that unions call onerous. Chao defends those new rules as a protection for dues-paying union members.

In any case, the approach to regulating the nation's workplaces is sure to change once President-elect Barack Obama takes office next month. Many labor advocates expect Obama's choice for labor secretary, Rep. Hilda Solis (D-Calif.), to be more aggressive in using the agency's enforcement powers. They also hope she will be an unabashed advocate for workers and shift the balance to the interests of organized labor.

"We're confident that she will return to the Labor Department one of its core missions -- to defend workers' basic rights in our nation's workplaces," AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said after Solis was tapped by Obama. "She's proven to be a passionate leader and advocate for all working families."

Unlike Chao, Solis is a supporter of legislation that would make it easier for workers to unionize, something opposed by Bush's Labor Department, which took the position that such measures would dampen economic growth.

"Unions are vital to the health and strength of our communities, and our workers are the bedrock of our economy," Solis said last year about the Employee Free Choice Act. "In this day and age when the number of women and new immigrants is increasing in the workforce, it is important that they become a part of the American fabric, and one of the ways is to be a member of a union."

Chao, who formerly led United Way of America, worked at the conservative Heritage Foundation and served in the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, said that her approach to her job was framed not by ideology but by her experience as an immigrant who came to this country from Taiwan.

She endured a month-long freighter ride across the Pacific Ocean with her mother and two sisters to rejoin her father, who had come to the United States three years earlier. She arrived as an 8-year-old who spoke no English, but within a decade she was attending Mt. Holyoke College and later Harvard Business School.

"I knew so little about mainstream America and what services were available," she said. "I know what it is like to feel vulnerable and fearful during a difficult time. That's why I am always exhorting my colleagues that whatever we do, it has a real impact. We are not just dealing with programs or pieces of paper."

To be sure, Chao is now part of the establishment. Married to Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Chao says she plans to return to the nonprofit realm once her long tenure as Labor secretary ends.

Asked about the perils of serving in an administration that has been so unpopular, Chao turned philosophical.

"We're a robust democracy here," she said. "That's the wonderful thing about this country. People can voice their different points of view. We are also a country where there will be criticism."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company