It should surprise no one, at this point, that an arm of the Bush administration charged with protecting Americans’ rights or safety is not doing its job. Even so, a government report and a Congressional hearing this week painted a disturbing picture of a Labor Department that simply is not standing up for workers.
President Bush has filled top posts across his administration with people who do not agree with the missions of their organizations. His Environmental Protection Agency has failed to protect the environment; his Justice Department has promoted injustice.
To lead the Department of Labor, Mr. Bush appointed Elaine Chao, who took office in 2001 arguing that states should be able to opt out of the federal minimum wage — a terrible idea that would drive down wages for the lowest-paid employees. For more than seven years, Ms. Chao has run a department that has tilted toward employers and failed to properly enforce labor laws.
In a report released this week, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office took a close look at a sampling of cases handled — or, rather, mishandled — by the Wage and Hour Division of the Labor Department. It found that the division failed to adequately investigate complaints that workers were not paid the minimum wage, were denied mandatory overtime or were not paid their last paychecks.
In one case, a delivery truck driver complained that he was not being paid for overtime that he had earned. The complaint languished for more than 17 months before an investigator was assigned. Then, the case was soon closed because the statute of limitations was about to run out.
The division dropped another case, in which disabled children were allegedly being paid cash by a trucking company to operate large machinery in violation of child-labor laws, because its investigators could not locate the employer. The G.A.O. had little trouble finding a company that appears to be the one cited in the complaint.
The G.A.O.’s findings suggest that the government is not doing its job of going after employers who “cheat their employees out of their hard-earned wages,” said Representative George Miller, the California Democrat who chairs the committee that held this week’s hearing.
The Labor Department responded, as The Times’s Steven Greenhouse reported, that the “Wage and Hour Division is delivering pay for workers, not a payday for trial lawyers.” The department has it exactly backward. By failing to enforce the law, it is creating more work for trial lawyers, who can turn what should be simple administrative procedures into full-blown lawsuits.
Attacking trial lawyers is a classic Republican talking point. Its use in response to complaints from hard-working Americans that they are being cheated is a giveaway that the real problem at the department is not one of competence, but of ideology.
The first step in getting the nation’s laws enforced again will be entrusting enforcement to people who believe in them. We hope the next president will do that.