Yesterday, conservatives and business leaders lauded the news that Donald Trump had chosen Elaine Chao to run the Department of Transportation, a position expected to play a key role in pushing through the incoming administration’s promised infrastructure overhaul. As Secretary of Labor, and the longest-serving member of George W. Bush’s cabinet, Chao earned a reputation among Republicans as a loyal and steady operator.
But labor advocates came to view Chao differently. As her leadership of the DoL progressed, Democrats and union leaders began noting with increasing alarm that the department’s friendliness to business interests seemed to be blinding the agency to its mandate of enforcing laws that protect American workers. Chao’s DOL, they charged, took an excessively deferential approach to businesses that were found to be mistreating employees, issued low fines for safety lapses, and ignored complaints from low-wage workers. Under her tenure, according to critics, lax enforcement allowed for the unchecked growth of an epidemic of employers illegally underpaying workers, a practice known as wage theft.
Toward the end of the Bush years, criticisms of Chao’s management were confirmed and extended upon in a series of scathing reports by the non-partisan Government Accountability Office (GAO). Stating that Bush-era policies in fact discouraged workers from even reporting stolen wages, GAO’s findings not only offer a vivid window into Chao’s tenure under Bush—they also provide a reminder of which direction federal labor law enforcement may once again turn under the incoming Republican administration, which has not yet announced its choice for Secretary of Labor.
In testimony before Congress in July of 2008, the GAO stated that Chao’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD), responsible for enforcing wage theft, had summarily dropped wage-theft complaints and simply advised workers to pursue the claims on their own. “In one example, a delivery driver who was working 55 hours per week informed WHD that he was not receiving overtime pay as required,” the GAO testified. “WHD waited more than 17 months before assigning an investigator to the complaint. The investigator subsequently dropped the case without performing any investigative actions.”
The following March, after an investigation that spanned the last several months of Chao’s tenure, GAO released another study concluding that the Department of Labor “has left thousands of actual victims of wage theft who sought federal government assistance with nowhere to turn.” During the course of its investigation, the GAO deployed undercover agents to pose as victimized workers seeking help from the federal agency. The first problem was that undercover GAO agents could not get Chao’s investigators to answer their calls. “Of the 115 phone calls we made directly to WHD field offices, 87 (76 percent) went directly to voicemail,” stated the report. “In one case, WHD failed to respond to seven messages from our fictitious complainant, including four messages left in a single week. In other cases, WHD delayed over 2 weeks in responding to phone calls or failed to return phone calls from one of our fictitious employers.”