This dispatch comes from Nation reporter Gregory Kaufmann:

Two new reports from the Center of American Progress (CAP) suggest that there is much the Obama Administration can do to immediately improve the lives of workers simply by enforcing their existing rights through the Department of Labor (DOL) and reforming federal contracting so that it promotes good jobs. Two panels of experts advocated for this agenda at CAP yesterday, and New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine delivered a keynote address.

Dr David Madland — co-author of both reports — said reforms like the stimulus and promoting the Employee Free Choice Act are critical “but these reforms will take time — something that workers don’t necessarily have… how [can we] make the economy work right away?”

Madland and co-author Karla Walter describe five reforms the Obama administration should focus on: increasing maximum allowable penalties for more effective deterrence; expanding enforcement staff and partnering with unions, industry associations, state agencies, and community organizations to expose scofflaws; reducing wage theft and safety violations by targeting high-violation sectors; collecting comprehensive data and creating a publicly accessible database on enforcement; and strengthening protection of immigrant workers by improving bilingual services and partnering with community organizations.

Panelists agreed that wage theft — paying less than minimum wage, stealing tips, failing to pay overtime, forcing workers to work off the clock, and violating prevailing wage laws on federal contracts — is what Kim Bobo, founder and executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice, described as “a national crisis.” Bobo said that there are currently “750 Wage and Hour enforcement staff to protect 130 million workers in 7 million workplaces… fewer than half as many enforcement staffers today as [in] 1941… when it was responsible for only 15.5 million workers.”

Thomas Perez, Secretary of the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, described how his agency went from previously being “zeroed out” by a Republican governor, to record recoveries of workers’ wages under Democratic Governor Martin O’Malley. “There’s an acute awareness that there’s a new sheriff in town…[we] make maximum use of the bully pulpit,” he said. “There’s a remarkable amount of things that you can do — Day 1, Day 90 — you can see a real sea change in a very short period of time.”

Governor Corzine spoke of challenges he has faced in trying to ensure that workers get a fair slice of the pie. “If I hear one more time that New Jersey is not a business friendly place because we actually support our workforce so that they can have a standard of living… it is very aggravating that if you actually believe that you are in the business of trying to create the greater good for the greatest number of people… that somehow or another that’s a disadvantage…. It is wrong, and we need to change that.”

One way of changing that, Madland suggested, is by using federal contracting standards to create “a race to the top” in treatment of workers. Madland and co-author Michael Paarlberg write about four contracting reforms for the Obama Administration: greater transparency — a publicly available database on working conditions, wages and benefit records of federal contractors; stronger oversight and enforcement — beginning with open and competitive bids; judicious use of contracting — it’s much more difficult to monitor working conditions in the private sector than in government sectors; and promotion of improved job standards — work with companies that meet or exceed specified wage and benefit levels.

Scott Amey, General Counsel for the Project on Government Oversight, noted that contract spending for FY2008 is estimated at $529 billion. That gives the government an enormous amount of leverage with potential contractors. But University of Baltimore School of Law professor Richard Loeb — a former senior official at OMB — said labor issues in contracting receive almost no attention from agency officials who are downright hostile to them. He said a cultural shift needs to occur that comes from the top of the Obama Administration.