This year was supposed to be a good one for America’s workers. After all, nearly 12 million workers won higher wages in 2016, the result of sustained and coordinated efforts around the country. There’s a catch though: if these wages aren’t enforced, American workers will never even see them.
And despite widespread support, state and local lawmakers and business communities have already begun threatening to not comply with the wage hikes. In Maine, Governor Paul LePage ordered his administration to stop enforcing a minimum wage hike that 60 percent of his state’s residents voted for, telling employers who violate the law that they would be off the hook.
At the other end of the country in Flagstaff, Arizona, 54 percent of city residents backed a $15 minimum wage in elections last year, but business groups are fighting to move enforcement from a local authority to a state commission, which would likely delay the processing of claims. The state as a whole has backed higher wages, approving a proposition to raise the state’s minimum to $12 by 2020 last year.
In the face of such attacks at the city and state level, it’s imperative to have a federal Labor Department committed to ensuring that workers aren’t cheated out of their wages - wages not only earned through hard work but also guaranteed by law.
This won’t be the case if Andy Puzder becomes Labor Secretary. As chief executive officer of CKE Restaurants, the parent company of Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s, Puzder consistently flouted basic labor standards.
Puzder, whose confirmation hearing has already been put off multiple times, could easily fail to enforce the wage increases that prevailed in referendums throughout the country, and he’s likely to put even the existing protections we have in jeopardy - including the minimum wage, which currently stands at a paltry $7.25.
It’s the proverbial fox guarding the hen house, a term that we seem to be asserting with every cabinet appointee, but that rings even more true with Puzder.
Just last week, CKE Restaurants was hit with nearly two dozen charges of stealing wages. Multiple workers said they had worked for weeks without seeing a paycheck. One was only paid after he stopped coming to work in protest.
CKE has also come under fire for paying employees with pre-paid debit cards that incur fees on certain ATMs, in effect shorting employees their full paycheck.
If Puzder runs the Labor Department like he runs his company, these kinds of abuses will be allowed to flourish nationwide – and workers will lose one of their most important outlets for addressing their concerns.
For working Americans, it could be a disaster of epic proportions.
And CKE is far from the only chain that regularly skirts labor laws. In fact, wage theft runs rampant across the restaurant industry, as well as retail and other low-paying service jobs. A National Employment Law Project study found that more than two-thirds of low-wage workers in New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles had experienced wage theft in the previous workweek. The Economic Policy Institute in 2014calculated that wage theft cost Americans as much as $50 billion every year.
Some states, realizing the scope of the problem, have taken steps to improve oversight in recent years. In New York, 2010 workers won the strongest protections against wage theft in the country. After passage of a significantly higher minimum wage last year, Governor Cuomo followed up with a 200-person task force to ensure wages are being paid.
Yet state action can only do so much. The Department of Labor sets standards for wage enforcement around the country and is the front-line agency for filing many wage theft cases. A 2009 Government Accountability Office report found that weak oversight during the Bush years had left thousands of workers stranded with nowhere to turn.
We have made too much progress to turn back now. Taking the teeth out of oversight hurts workers and hurts the overall economy. Members of Congress need to make clear that Puzder’s persistent record of wage theft disqualifies him from the job of Labor Secretary – and, if Puzder is confirmed, states must show that they are willing to stand up for workers on their own.
JoEllen Chernow is Director of Economic Justice at the Center for Popular Democracy