The Nation - Conservatives and business leaders lauded the news that Donald Trump had chosen Elaine Chao to run the Department of Transportation, a position expected to play a key role in pushing through the incoming administration’s promised infrastructure overhaul. As Secretary of Labor, and the longest-serving member of George W. Bush’s cabinet, Chao earned a reputation among Republicans as a loyal and steady operator.
But labor advocates came to view Chao differently. As her leadership of the DoL progressed, Democrats and union leaders began noting with increasing alarm that the department’s friendliness to business interests seemed to be blinding the agency to its mandate of enforcing laws that protect American workers. Chao’s DOL, they charged, took an excessively deferential approach to businesses that were found to be mistreating employees, issued low fines for safety lapses, and ignored complaints from low-wage workers. Under her tenure, according to critics, lax enforcement allowed for the unchecked growth of an epidemic of employers illegally underpaying workers, a practice known as wage theft.
Toward the end of the Bush years, criticisms of Chao’s management were confirmed and extended upon in a series of scathing reports by the non-partisan Government Accountability Office. Stating that Bush-era policies in fact discouraged workers from even reporting stolen wages, GAO’s findings not only offer a vivid window into Chao’s tenure under Bush—they also provide a reminder of which direction federal labor law enforcement may once again turn under the incoming Republican administration, which has not yet announced its choice for Secretary of Labor.