In mid-October, then-candidate Donald Trump made his first pledge to “drain the swamp” in Washington. His seemingly no-nonsense approach to corruption and Congressional sluggishness won him many favours from those disaffected by the federal government, not to mention those who are suspicious of its very existence. After decades of unwillingness to pass even basic reforms, many voters felt that the government did indeed need to be “run like a business”, another cornerstone slogan of the Trump campaign.
Even the most superficial Google search on Trump reveals no end of accusations that he treats his workers like dirt. Multiple people have come forward to allege that Trump hired them for their services and then refused to pay them once the work was done, which doesn’t let us put much stock in the idea that any swamps are soon to be drained. Now that Trump has filled his cabinet with private sector vultures, we can rest assured that the swamp isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
While the appointment of Rex Tillerson and James Matthis will no doubt suck up most of our attention spans in the future, one such Cabinet position may well go unnoticed. Elaine Chao, a former Secretary of Labour, Distinguished Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, and wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, has been selected to run the Department of Transportation, which will no doubt be tasked with overseeing Trump’s ambitious plans to revitalize America’s infrastructure. As Secretary of Transportation, Chao will be responsible for the safety of tens of millions of workers, not to mention countless passengers.
Though Chao’s longtime association with the Heritage Foundation should make us weary – the institution has a sordid history of putting profits way ahead of people’s safety – it is her stint as Secretary of Labor that proves most troubling, and shows just how unsuitable she is to be back in government.
In 2008, the non-partisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) started an open-ended investigation of Chao’s department, specifically its Wage and Hour Division (WHD), which is responsible for ensuring that workers are paid overtime, paid on time, and paid the federally-mandated minimum wage. The WHD is the first port of call for workers who are being royally screwed over by their bosses. The GAO examined 70,000 closed cases between 2005 and 2007, finding that the WHD “inappropriately rejected complaints” and “neglected to investigate [complaints] until it was too late” on numerous occasions, often leaving victims of wage theft with nowhere to go.
One example investigated by the GAO related to an anonymous complaint made in Hamilton, Texas, in which a caller alleged that a nearby company was paying disabled children to drive trucks; a gross violation of child labor laws. The WHD opened an investigation, couldn’t find the trucking company in its online searches, and closed the case. As part of its investigation into the WHD, the GAO followed up on these unresolved cases to see if the Division handled them correctly. The GAO was able to track down the trucking company simply by checking public records.
Another case involved a delivery driver in Lorton, Virginia who was working 55 hours a week but not receiving overtime pay. The WHD did nothing for seventeen months, and when it finally assigned an investigator, that investigator closed the case on the grounds that they couldn’t contact the employee in question. In any event, the investigator claimed, the statute of limitations for prosecuting the employer has passed (because of the WHD’s negligence!). In its follow up, the GAO concluded that the statute of limitations had not passed, and they were even able to contact the employee in question.
But these are just two examples. In all, the GAO’s 2008 investigation shows a systematic failure to adequately investigate accusations of wage theft and child labor law violations. This was not a case of a select few victims slipping through the net – it was full of gaping holes.
We may give Chao the benefit of the doubt here. After all, the WHD has offices all over the country, and it might be unjust to expect Chao to directly oversee the activities in each. Although it is hard to believe that she knew nothing about the practices of the WHD for seven years, the only thing Chao could do at this point would be to right the wrongs of the past, reform the WHD and reprimand those who acted negligently.
Despite having six months to do so, Chao did nothing, and a second GAO investigation conducted soon after Chao left office found that the problem had actually got worse. Not only were all the previous accusations of negligence renewed, which means the WHD did not act on the report’s warnings at all, but the situation had deteriorated even further.
This time, the WHD was found guilty of lying to people who called to see how their case was progressing, found guilty of failing even to record people’s cases in the database (meaning that the case simply did not exist), and even encouraging employees to message their Congressperson and ask them to send more money to the WHD. In many cases, the Division simply didn’t pick up the phone when victims called to lodge a complaint, which according to the GAO, “has left thousands of actual victims of wage theft who sought federal government assistance with nowhere to turn”.
In this investigation, GAO agents posed as fictional employees and employers, lodging and responding to fictional complaints to see how the Division responded.
In one fictitious case, undercover GAO investigators told the WHD that a meat-packing plant was using children to operate dangerous heavy machinery. Not only did the WHD fail to open an investigation, but its officials did not even record the complaint in the departmental database. If this were a real complaint, the WHD would have knowingly left children to die in dangerous conditions and nobody in the government would have known about it.
In another fictitious case, GAO agents posed as workers accusing their employer of stealing their wages. The WHD accepted that the accusations warranted an investigation, and successfully contacted the fictional employer in question, who then refused to pay the wages and stopped answering the WHD’s phone calls. The Division then closed the case on the grounds that the employer could not be contacted, leaving the wage theft accusation against him to go unpunished. This effectively meant that an employer could get away with committing a crime if they simply stopped picking up the government’s calls.
Under the sinister philosophical guidance of the Heritage Foundation, Elaine Chao ran the Department of Labor in the interests of corporations, wage thieves, and people who put children in front of dangerous heavy machinery.
Another of Trump’s widely discussed pre-election promises was the pledge to bring the coal industry back to life, and to save it from its steady, inevitable decline. Though his plan amounts simply to abandoning carbon emission reduction targets, and will not stop the death of the industry, it was a pledge that meant much to the workers who feel as though their livelihoods, not to mention their only source of income, was in danger.
Though Chao now has other responsibilities in her new role, her time as Secretary of Labor was not only a disaster for all workers, but a particularly dark time for miners. In line with her crusade against governmental regulation, Chao sought to achieve federal targets on mining safety inspections (targets that have not been met for thirty years) by cutting over 200 such inspections. This is effectively like shooting every other participant in a race and then declaring yourself the winner. Two mining disasters probably resulted from Chao’s cutthroat approach to regulation, and although she hastily restored the previous inspections in the wake of the collapses, by the end of her term, many mines remained severely under-inspected.
During the election, Trump made great gains in some white working class areas with his promise to restore the industries that they and their forebears relied on, and many saw his campaign as a lifeline. With the appointment of people like Elaine Chao, it is clear that he was lying through his teeth, and has absolutely no interest in the safety and prosperity of workers. Chao shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the federal government ever again.