Labor Secretary Elaine Chao with President George W. Bush

What Is Elaine Chao's Legacy?

U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine ChaoElaine Chao's Labor Department was busy as 2008 wound down, giving emergency grants to a few states and touting its convictions of 15 union officials in the first two months of FY2009 and a 15 percent cut in real terms since 2001 in the department's huge discretionary budget. The Employee Benefits Security Administration, a DOL unit, announced a record $11.9 billion had been recovered for pension and other employee benefits plans during the eight years Chao has been Labor secretary. But where was the list of safety and health accomplishments for Chao, who took office eight years ago this month and stayed on to become the longest-serving secretary of Labor since World War II? She again cited the lowest U.S. injury and illness rate on record.

Here's how her bio page on sums up Chao's achievements:

"During her tenure, the Department updated the white collar overtime regulations under the Fair Labor Standards Act, which has been on the agenda of every Administration since 1977. The most significant regulatory tort reform of President Bush's first term, the new regulations provided millions of low-wage vulnerable workers with strengthened overtime protection. In 2003, the Department achieved the first major update of union financial disclosure regulations in more than 40 years, giving rank and file members enhanced information on how their hard-earned dues are spent. The Department has set new worker protection enforcement records, including recovering record back wages for vulnerable low wage immigrant workers. The Department has also launched comprehensive reform of the nation's publicly funded worker training programs, to better serve dislocated and unemployed workers. On August 17, 2006, President Bush signed the Pension Protection Act, which protects the 44 million workers whose retirement security rests upon private sector defined benefit pension plans."

One month after Chao took office in February 2001, Congress and President Bush repealed OSHA's ergonomics standard. She outlined her approach in two early speeches in which the chief theme was her interest in finding "fresh ideas, fresh approaches, and new partnerships to help us prepare the 21st century workforce," she said.

"And if we really are going to protect workers, we must put more emphasis than ever before on prevention and compliance assistance — rather than just after-the-fact enforcement," Chao said March 6, 2001. "Each time I approve a major fine against a company — for safety violations that were discovered after an accident that cost the life of an employee — I can't help but feel a twinge that if we had just worked harder on prevention, we wouldn't be in the impossible position of trying to calculate the value of a lost human life.

"So while I am committed to enforcement, I believe that the necessary predicate to enforcement must be better prevention. At the same time, I think the Department of Labor has a broader mission that I believe it can fulfill: to become the Department of the Workforce, contributing to America's economic development by investing in its most precious capital resource: its workers."

Eight years later, on Oct. 2, 2008, her speech at a U.S. Chamber of Commerce "Labor Policy at a Crossroads" event was devoted to attacking the union-supported Employee Free Choice Act and urging Congress not to embrace a European-style interventionism that tells employers how they must provide pensions and health care to their workers. She talked of "fostering cooperation between employers and workers to update technology, educate and train workers, and fill the jobs of the new economy."

Chao headed a cabinet department longer than anyone else during George W. Bush's presidency, and she never backed away from his agenda. To some within the safety and health community, that's the problem.

"It's almost gotten to the point where, is OSHA even relevant today, and is it having any impact in the workplace?" AIHA President Lindsay E. Booher, CIH, CSP, asked during a December interview. "I think ultimately the buck has to stop with the [OSHA] assistant secretary and the secretary. They seem to be proud of the way the injuries have come down, and I don't know how factual those [injury numbers] are."

Few U.S. Labor secretaries have equaled the longevity of Chao, the 24th secretary thus far. The first person to hold the office, William B. Wilson, served from March 6, 1913, to March 4, 1921, and the second, James J. Davis, served almost 10 years, from March 5, 1921 to Nov. 30, 1930. The most famous secretary was Frances Perkins, who served from March 4, 1933 to June 30, 1945 -- 12 years, the longest tenure ever, and through the bulk of World War II, which required the transformation of American industry and wrought lasting changes in the U.S. workforce. Her tenure also saw the enactment of the bedrock labor laws still in effect, including the Fair Labor Standards Act (1938), which dictates the minimum wage and regulates employers' use of overtime.

Chao's resume includes serving as deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of Transportation, chairman of the Federal Maritime Commission, and she was a Distinguished Fellow at The Heritage Foundation before Bush nominated her to lead DOL.

She has an MBA from the Harvard Business School and an undergraduate economics degree from Mount Holyoke College. She is married to the U.S. Senate's Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

The Next Secretary's Priorities

President-elect Barack Obama nominated U.S. Rep. Hilda Solis, D-Calif., to replace Chao in the new administration. Chao's successor faces big challenges, given the U.S. economy's problems and rising unemployment. AIHA President Booher said he'd like the new secretary to reaffirm that health and safety excellence confers a competitive advantage to a business -- and then turn that into action by requiring U.S. companies to write and implement their own safety and health management plans.

ASSE voiced a similar opinion Dec. 19 and said it had discussed its goals for the new administration's safety and health approach with the Obama transition team. "OSHA should encourage employers to take proactive responsibility for safety and health through risk-based regulatory approaches and compliance assistance resources," ASSE advised. "Europe, Japan, China and committed U.S. employers already use such approaches. OSHA is falling behind the world in not incorporating risk-based safety and health management approaches."

"We've got to update the PELs," Booher added. "We can't have credibility with PELs written in 1968. That's embarrassing. This is a political problem, not a technical problem."

Singapore and other Asian countries are writing better exposure standards, he noted. Asked whether the United States is world class in safety and health, he answered, "I think we're saying it, but we're just not walking the talk."

Solis' congressional record and Obama's campaign statements indicate they will break sharply from some of Chao's priorities. Solis supports the Employee Free Choice Act, a favorite bill of organized labor that is anathema to employer groups. She supports equal pay for women, ensuring health care for Latinos and other underserved minorities, and enacting a U.S. ban on asbestos in any product. Like U.S. Rep. George Miller, a fellow California Democrat who chairs the Education and Labor Committee, Solis condemned DOL's December 2008 rule changes in guest worker programs as a mean-spirited attempt to cut farm laborers' wages and rights. (DOL said the H-2A rule changes, set to take effect Jan. 17, protect farmworkers' wages by setting them at local prevailing wage rates.)

Solis, who came to Congress in 2000 and won five terms, might have been a good choice for EPA administrator. She served three terms as chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus' Task Force on Health and the Environment and was vice chair of the House Environment and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee, which is a subcommittee of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

She and Chao might agree on the necessity of training America's workers for the 21st Century. Solis is the author of the Green Jobs Act and will champion "green jobs," as Obama has.

This article originally appeared in the January 2009 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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