If you listen to the Left, the Bush administration has been oppressing and endangering American workers for the last eight years. Workplace conditions have deteriorated and workers live at the mercy of unaccountable and unscrupulous employers. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, sitting squarely in the pocket of big business, has dithered. As President-Elect Obama has put it, the department has forsaken its intended role of protecting workers and instead acted as a “Department of Management.”
The Washington Post this week quoted Scott Lilly from the left-wing Center for American Progress complaining of an agency that has either gone to seed or run amok, depending on the function. “I think you’ve got people embedded there who are philosophically hostile to the mission of the agency,” he said.
The ideologues are framing their own narrative about the Bush Department of Labor, but it is not backed up by the facts, which tell the story of an agency that is not only doing what it is supposed to do, but doing it better than it has in years past — in some cases, much better.
The Bush administration has witnessed administrative and policy failures, but the operation of the Department of Labor is not among them. In addition to being the best-run agency according to the administration’s own standards — the President’s Management Agenda (PMA)
— the performance statistics show clear improvement on nearly every measure
. In most cases, the Bush labor department has done more to help workers — and even their unions (if not union bosses) — than the Clinton administration.
One of Labor’s important functions is to recover money for workers who are wrongfully denied their pay. Congressional Democrats, led by House Education and Labor chairman George Miller (D., Calif.), have used reports backed by anecdotal evidence to attack the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour division for failing to perform this function adequately. In fact, their hearing on the issue earlier this year revealed that the current Labor Department is significantly outperforming its Clinton-era predecessor on this score. Last year, Labor’s Wage and Hour Division recovered three times as much in unjustly withheld wages ($220,613,703 all told) for three times as many short-changed workers (341,624) as it had ten years earlier during the Clinton administration.
Another key role of the Labor Department is to safeguard working conditions through OSHA. The Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that Labor’s results have also been good in this regard. The rate of workplace injuries and illnesses is down 21 percent since fiscal 2002. The rate of workplace fatalities is at its lowest level in history, down 14 percent since Bush took office. OSHA, whose budget has increased modestly since 2001 (from $426 million to $502 million), has more than doubled the size of its workplace safety-training program over what existed under President Clinton, with more than 3 million workers trained over the last seven years.
The Labor Department also protects the employees of federal contractors from unlawful discrimination through the Office of Federal Contractor Compliance Programs. This is one more measure in which Chao’s department has excelled. Since fiscal 2001, the department has increased annual monetary remedies for employees who were treated unfairly by 170 percent.