The Seattle Times • Elizabeth Ford & Dylan Orr
AFTER being delayed four times already, the Senate on Thursday is expected to consider the nomination of Andrew Puzder to lead the Department of Labor. The department’s job is to protect workers by ensuring minimum-wage and overtime payment, safe and healthy workplaces, and maintaining critical workforce statistics. If Puzder is confirmed as Secretary, DOL’s fundamental enforcement role will be in jeopardy.
There is an epidemic of wage theft in the United States. A survey of more than 4,000 low-wage workers conducted by the National Employment Law Project indicated that more than 1 million employees were not paid minimum wage, not paid overtime and not given the breaks that they are entitled to. Among those low-wage workers surveyed:
• 26 percent were paid below minimum wage in the previous week, and fully 60 percent of those workers were underpaid by $1 an hour or more.
• 75 percent were not paid overtime after working more than 40 hours in the previous week.
• Nearly 75 percent were not paid for “off the clock” hours worked beyond their daily shift.
• An overwhelming majority (86 percent) were not provided meal or rest breaks.
Undocumented workers are by far the hardest hit by wage theft — nearly half report having been victimized in the past week. These are not simple arithmetic errors but part of a conscious effort by some employers to skirt wage and hour laws designed to help all workers — regardless of race, gender and immigration status.
One of DOL’s main functions is to combat wage theft through investigation and enforcement. If Puzder becomes secretary, he can make his own decisions on what or how strongly to enforce. How many investigators should be hired? Which cases should DOL litigate? Puzder could de-prioritize immigrant workers, or worse, require workers to disclose their immigration status as part of the investigation process. He could decide that any fast food case will fall lower on the priority scale or simply be ignored.
Puzder spent his career in fast food, running Hardee’s and Carl’s Junior restaurants, where the business model relies on paying poverty wages. He opposes raising the minimum wage and basic benefits like paid sick days. He has even complained about having to give employees rest and meal breaks. His company has relied on hyper-sexualized images of women to sell burgers, which the marketing department justified in a 2011 news release by saying, “Ugly ones don’t sell burgers.”