'Lifelong Labor Advocate' Nominated as DOL Solicitor
M. Patricia Smith is President Obama's choice for solicitor of Labor, he announced Thursday. The nomination of Smith, now commissioner of the New York State Department of Labor, moves to fill a key opening at the top of the U.S. Department of Labor; the solicitor's office defends OSHA cases before federal courts and influences DOL policy. Known as Tricia, Smith oversees a New York agency with an annual budget of $4 billion and 3,700 employees in 80 offices; she is an advisor to Gov. David Paterson on workforce and labor policy.
One day before Obama announced her nomination, Smith held a news conference to announce the largest amount ever collected in one case in her department's history: $2.3 million in minimum wage and overtime underpayments that is going to more than 800 workers. Tsu Yue Wang agreed to pay that amount and to educate workers in his restaurants about their rights under state labor laws after the department investigated labor practices at nine Asian restaurants in the city.
Smith said this during the news conference: "I am a lifelong labor advocate and firmly believe that it is our responsibility as public servants to stand up for the working men and woman of this great state. We must remember that there was a time, not all that long ago, when workers didn't have a day of rest; when there were few-to-no protections for workers related to hours worked and pay; and when safe working conditions were not a priority for anyone. Unfortunately, today, there are still many who are victimized by employers who blatantly break the law. In the months ahead, we will continue our efforts to protect all workers, assist the unemployed, and connect employers with workers."
Her NYSDOL bio notes that Smith created a task force that found some 2,000 misclassified workers and more than $19 million dollars in unreported wages, $1.2 million in unpaid unemployment taxes and penalties, and more than $3 million owed to 646 workers in back wages; it cites "stepped up enforcement, inspections, outreach, surveys, training, reviews, grants, licensing and certifications" in connection with DOSH programs and units.
Smith previously worked for 20 years in the Labor Bureau of the New York State Attorney General's Office, the last eight as bureau chief. She represented the New York State Department of Labor and the New York State Workers' Compensation Board in state and federal litigation, and in 1996 and 1997 she argued and won two Employment Retirement Income Security Act cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. Prior to her work in the AG's office, she worked for legal services organizations representing unemployment claimants, minimum wage workers, and others. She received her law degree from the New York University School of Law.
Obama also nominated T. Michael Kerr, currently assistant to Secretary-Treasurer Anna Burger of the Service Employees International Union, as U.S. Department of Labor assistant secretary for Administration and Management. Kerr worked at DOL during the Clinton administration.