Economy

Would Moses Be Confirmed to the U.S. Department of Labor?

What we’ve been doing as a nation to protect low-wage workers from workplace robbery is clearly not working.

Special permission has been given to AlterNet to republish this commentary. Read more expert religion analysis at Religion Dispatches.

It’s a good thing Moses, the Old Testament’s most powerful advocate for oppressed workers, didn’t have to be confirmed by the US Senate. He would have faced a lot of opposition.

This Wednesday, October 7, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pension (HELP) Committee will finally vote on the Obama administration’s labor department nominations of M. Patricia Smith for Solicitor of Labor (the senior attorney for the Department) and Lorelei Boylan for Wage and Hour Administrator. They were both nominated in the spring, and Smith’s confirmation hearing was held in May, a full five months ago. As important as Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis is in setting the tone and direction for the Department of Labor (DOL), the real nuts-and-bolts work of reinvigorating the department’s enforcement efforts around wage theft will be accomplished by these two critical positions.

The nation is facing a wage theft crime wave. Six weeks ago, the findings of the largest survey of low-wage workers ever conducted were released. “Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers” revealed that 26 percent of the low-wage workers surveyed were not paid the minimum wage and 76 percent of those who worked overtime were not paid time and a half—blatant violations of the law.

What we’ve been doing as a nation to protect low-wage workers from workplace robbery is clearly not working. President Obama could not have chosen two finer public servants to reinvigorate and lead the nation’s agency charged with protecting low-wage workers against unscrupulous employers. As the Commissioner of the New York State Department of Labor, Patricia Smith oversaw the development of the nation’s most effective and creative enforcement mechanisms; programs that have recovered wages for workers, recovered taxes for the State of New York, reached millions more workers about the programs and resources offered by the Department of Labor, and debarred companies that steal wages from public contracts. And Lorelei Boylan worked with Smith at the New York Department of Labor as the director of strategic enforcement, leading investigations of unscrupulous employers.

Smith and Boylan are not only dedicated public servants, but have done exemplary work defending the rights of workers; like Moses, they want the abuse of low-wage workers to stop, and they have tried some new approaches to getting unscrupulous employers to change their behavior. Their creative—and effective—approaches to wage theft have raised the ire of right-wing business forces who call the groundbreaking community partnerships forged by the New York State DOL “vigilante justice.”

Like any visionaries, Smith and Boylan know that new approaches are required. If the critics don’t like community partnerships modeled on neighborhood crime watch programs and community policing, what would they have said about the frogs, gnats, boils, hail, and locusts that Moses and Aaron delivered? No question about it: Moses would not have been confirmed.

As for Smith and Boylan, we’ve waited since the spring for their confirmation. The Senate should confirm them immediately so they can get to work freeing the nation’s workers from wage theft.

Kim Bobo, Founder and Executive Director of Interfaith Worker Justice, writes the “Dispatches from the Workplace” column for the online magazine Religion Dispatches. She is the author of Wage Theft in America: Why Millions of Working Americans Are Not Getting Paid -- And What We Can Do About It (The New Press) and the co-author of Organizing for Social Change, the best-selling manual on progressive activism in the U.S.