Workers have a friend in U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, who launched a new wage theft protection campaign in Chicago this morning.
Spurred on by labor unions and Chicago-based workers' rights organizations, Illinois officials at the state and federal level have been fighting tirelessly to pass legislation that would protect Americans whose wages are stolen by abusive employers. With Hilda Solis in charge of the U.S. Department of Labor, they know the Obama administration has their back.
At the University of Illinois-Chicago this morning, in the shadow of the legendary Hull House, Secretary Solis launched a national campaign to help ensure workers recover back-pay owed to them. "Workplace enforcement is not only our responsibility," she told the capacity crowd, "but it is our moral obligation." Watch some clips from her speech below:
The "We Can Help" campaign is an effort to connect workers with the services offered by the Labor Department to file grievances. Officials are directing their outreach at some of the most vulnerable working populations: low-wage employees, immigrants (regardless of legal status), women in male-dominated professions, young workers, sub-contractors, and the disabled. The intention is to build awareness about the available resources through social networking, radio and television spots, and partnerships with their trusted friends in labor, faith-based, and community organizations.
On top of the new campaign, Solis is busy whipping her long-neglected department into shape. For nearly a decade, labor officials in the Bush administration ignored enforcement responsibilities and attacked workers' rights to organize and to obtain fair pay and decent benefits. Under President Obama (and in the face of a devastating recession), there's a new urgency at the Labor Department. Funding in last year's budget was increased, bringing it in line with the department's resources under President Clinton. Solis has used that money to hire 710 additional enforcement staffers, of which 250 work in the critical wage-and-hour division. (Those are the folks who swing by job sites and field complaints to prevent funny business.) She's also reached out to community and labor organizations that have helped support the enforcement drives, serving almost as unpaid staffers. (Read Esther Kaplan's excellent piece for more context.) "We are a replenished and renergized division," said Nancy J. Leppink, deputy director of the wage-and-hour division.
But the problems the agency faces are immense. The Chicago-based group Interfaith Worker Justice believes that two million workers are paid less than the minimum wage, three million are wrongly classified as independent contractors instead of employees, and millions more are illegally denied overtime pay. The Government Accountability Office backs up their claims. The Illinois Department of Labor says 10,000 workers reported wage theft incidents last year alone. That doesn't even factor in all of the exploited workers Solis is trying to drag out from the shadows.
Despite those challenges, Solis' renewed sense of purpose electrified the crowd, which jammed the UIC student center to hear her speak. She was also joined by her former colleagues in the U.S. House, Illinois' own Jan Schakowsky, Bobby Rush, and Danny Davis.
You can read more about the campaign here.