It’s no secret that the floor has fallen out from beneath American workers. The minimum wage is now 25 percent lower than its peak in 1968. Collective bargaining rights are being stripped away. Businesses are downright stealing from their employees, to the tune of $185 million in 2008—three times more than what was stolen in all bank, gas station and convenience store robberies. Others are skipping out on their obligations by misclassifying their workers as independent contractors.
Given the political climate, the prospects for reversing the race to the bottom across low-wage industries seem a bit grim. There are, however, glimmers of success in the minimum-wage campaigns throughout the country. And there’s also a new bureaucrat in town, one whose role is little discussed but of real significance in the effort to restore eroded wages and workplace standards.
In early May, Boston University economist David Weil took over as director of the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour division, where he’s responsible for enforcing a slate of statutes that set minimum requirements for employers and protect some of the nation’s most vulnerable workers. He’s the first permanent administrator in a decade, and was confirmed only after Senate Democrats changed the filibuster rules so that a simple majority could approve a nominee. Weil previously advised the division on strategic labor law enforcement, and is known for his work on the franchise industry and on labor violations in the construction industry.
The laws under Weil’s oversight—including the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act—are the bedrock of American labor rights, but for decades the agency has been criticized for lax oversight. The Government Accountability Office issued a scathing report on the Wage and Hour division in 2009, writing that the agency “left thousands of actual victims of wage theft who sought federal government assistance with nowhere to turn.” The result, the GAO wrote, “is unscrupulous employers’ taking advantage of our country’s low-wage workers.”
Weil is keenly aware of the sorry state of low-wage labor, and the challenges facing his division. “We are in a period of time where working people have experienced—for a long time—the diminishment of their voice,” he said in an interview.
Weil described the division’s challenges as two-fold, the first being basic resource constraints. Historically, the bulk of Wage and Hour’s enforcement activity was investigating individual complaints—a strategy that amounted to a game of whack-a-mole, considering that the DOL has only 1,100 investigators to oversee 135 million workers in more than 7 million businesses.
Perhaps more critical are structural changes in the workplace that have occurred over the past two decades. As Weil explains it, market pressure pushed firms to farm out more and more activities that weren’t considered “core” to their business, relying on third-party contractors and franchise systems. Weil has studied this trend extensively; he calls it “fissuring,” referring to a rock breaking apart. (He credits his wife, a geologist, for the term.)