Entering the Belly of the Beast, and Slowly Being Digested.

Last Thursday on February 24th, I sat through a four hour “Information and Outreach Forum” presented by the Department of Labor. This however was not a forum looking to help educate employers on doing business better and legally, it was “an information and outreach forum for workers, community based organizations, unions and advocacy groups in Denver.” The goal of this forum as stated by Dusti Gurule, regional representative for Secretary Solis in Denver was “that this outreach effort will increase workers’ awareness of the laws and arm employees with the information to file a complaint when their rights have been violated.”  The attendees were made up of about two-thirds union representation and the other third being advocacy groups.  There did not appear to be any individual employees/workers attending nor any other employers.

We were welcomed by a representative of the Interfaith Worker Justice and FRESC, a labor organization. He clearly had a bias that businesses are bad, and went on to excitedly tell us about a rally that they organized last November where they got 100 day laborers together to file claims against their employers. Oh boy, if this is the direction of this forum, I am going to have a great time this next three and a half hours!

The first presenter was from our own Colorado Department of Labor and Employment (CDLE). The CDLE presenter was clearly showing her labor support. There were multiple statements about how upset and sad they (I am assuming other workers at the CDLE) were that the state minimum wage actually decreased a couple of years ago, instead of constantly increasing. Continuing on she explained how happy they were that the minimum wage has gone back up and pleased that it is back to being greater than the federal minimum wage. After going on stating how employees deserve overtime she explained that the CDLE deal with over 7,000 complaints and written inquires annually and mediation takes around 35 to 45 days. This appears to be a large number; however the additional statistic that would help put this into perspective, how many complaints are found to be valid, was never given.

The next speaker was a representative from the federal DOL and he presented a basic overview of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). I have seen this representative speak before in a meeting of employers and his presentation did not change much but he did emphasize areas due to his audience.  One particular area that I found intriguing was when he was explaining that paying cash for payroll was ok to do. As he was explaining this fact he was giving an example and stated that some employees do not have a checking account or bank so he said “it could be an undocumented worker, and that is ok”. I thought that it was illegal for an employer to hire and work “undocumented workers”. So it appears that this DOL representative is telling us that it is ok to work an illegal alien. I wonder how that made the union representatives feel?

The last presentation was from two representatives of OSHA.  I actually found this last presentation pretty refreshing as the OSHA reps did not seem overtly biased on either side. There were several times when the union representatives seemed to get pretty excited over the fact that they could turn in other contractors and employers for potential violations that they see. However the OSHA representative continued to explain that OSHA’s main goal is to keep employees safe and that the union reps should first get the exposed employees to safety before worrying about how to file a complaint.  OSHA also explained that they should try and let the contractor/employer know of the unsafe exposure before filing a claim. I really appreciated this explanation because we should all (union, employer, worker, advocate, etc.) work together to keep workers and the workplace safe, and not just look for ways we can penalize or shut down business.

I went into this forum with the purpose in mind to find out what the different divisions of the DOL had to say about employers when speaking to unions and advocacy groups. What I found was that there are still groups and individuals that absolutely believe that employers are innately bad. A couple of presenters clearly had this belief and that very much worries me. There are bad employers out there, however based off of the last 15 years that I have been working with small businesses, that is the extreme exception and not the norm. I sure wish someone could convince these anti-business believers that it is only the bad businesses that should be punished and not every business. I guess I am living in my dream world again.