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Know Your Rights
Source: Crain's New York Business
Subject: Workplace Justice
Type: Media Coverage

GOP slams Obama’s pick of NY labor chief

A state Department of Labor initiative to get community groups to
help identify wage and hour violations has sparked a Republican-led effort to
derail the nomination of New York’s labor commissioner to a top Obama
administration post.

Sen. Michael Enzi, R-Wyoming, sent a letter Monday to President Barack Obama
urging him to withdraw his nomination of Commissioner M. Patricia Smith to be
the U.S. Department of Labor’s solicitor, the department’s top law enforcement

In it, he accused Ms. Smith of providing statements to the Health, Education,
Labor and Pensions Committee about New York’s Wage Watch program that
contradicted documents she later provided to the committee.

Senate Republicans are unhappy with the initiative, which was launched in
January to enlist unions and community groups to help improve labor law
compliance. New York Wage Watch was slow to get off the ground and has not yet
done much to improve enforcement, but Republicans in the Senate have zeroed in
on the program, and Ms. Smith’s statements about it, in an attempt to derail her

"If it was her intention to mislead the Senate, then I must oppose her
nomination," Mr. Enzi wrote in the letter to Mr. Obama. "If she unintentionally
gave inaccurate statements to the Senate, then I question her ability to manage
a large operation, since she does not have a clear understanding of what is
taking place in her own department in New York."

Mr. Enzi also questioned Ms. Smith’s ability to work with owners of small to
midsize businesses, since she started the program without consulting with

As part of the Wage Watch program, Ms. Smith enlisted unions like the Retail,
Wholesale and Department Store Union and community organizations like Make the
Road By Walking
to participate in activities aimed at improving labor-law
compliance. The groups hold know-your-rights training for workers, provide
employers with information about compliance and distribute literature to workers
in places like supermarkets, coin-operated laundries and nail salons.

“You have a woman who created a program that allowed employers to voluntarily
come into compliance after being educated, a program that would increase tax
revenues, and they’re just focused on it because they think it’s a ‘gotcha’
labor policy,” said Pat Purcell, assistant to the president of UFCW Local 1500,
one of the unions that participates in Wage Watch. “But it’s the complete
opposite of gotcha labor policy. It’s goal is voluntary compliance with the

In a statement, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis stood behind the nomination and
called on the Senate to confirm Ms. Smith.

“Patricia is one of the nation’s foremost labor commissioners, and she has a
well-deserved reputation for being a tough enforcer of the law,” Ms. Solis said.
“Throughout her career, she has fostered collaboration among workers, the
community and employers who are put at a disadvantage when their competitors
refuse to comply with basic employee protections. She is tough, fair and

A state Department of Labor spokesman said Ms. Smith is “still here and going
as strong as ever.” Last week, she announced the department had established
Twitter and Facebook accounts to help unemployed New Yorkers keep up with news
about the recession.