Dr. David Weil, Director of the Wage & Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor, speaks at the University of Arizona Medical School, Phoenix, April 1, 2015. On stage are Wage and Hour Division Phoenix District Director Eric Murray (at left) and Attorney Matt Meaker, who was also the event coordinator (Photo courtesy of the DOL Wage and Hour Division.)

Dr. David Weil, Director of the Wage & Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor, speaks at the University of Arizona Medical School, Phoenix, April 1, 2015. On stage are Wage and Hour Division Phoenix District Director Eric Murray (at left) and Attorney Matt Meaker, who was also the event coordinator (Photo courtesy of the DOL Wage and Hour Division.)

A recent visit to Arizona by a federal official was made possible by attorneys and others concerned about employee misclassification. The result was a day of speaking events and community meetings for Dr. David Weil, Director of the Wage & Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor.

It’s hard to overestimate the economic and other problems that misclassification causes.

At an April 1 event, Wage and Hour Division Phoenix District Director Eric Murray said that fully one-half of his office’s time is taken up with the issue. It affects: individual workers who may be underpaid, state and other agencies that get artificially lower revenue because of the errors, and businesses that may be forced into difficult decisions regarding compliance.

Wage and Hour Division Phoenix District Director Eric Murray speaks at employee misclassification event, April 1, 2015.

Wage and Hour Division Phoenix District Director Eric Murray speaks at employee misclassification event, April 1, 2015.

That constellation of problems led lawyers like Matt Meaker to form the Employee Misclassification Compliance Assistance Program (EMCAP) Working Group. He is the group’s Chair, and he took the lead on bringing the issue to the attention of the federal agency.

The subject generates much passion, Meaker said at the April 1 event. But it is not an easy subject to confront.

“Good guys want to compete on a level playing field,” Meaker told a roomful of employment lawyers, contractors and their representatives, and others. “They want to be good stewards of industry.”

Attorney Matt Meaker speaks at employee misclassification event, April 1, 2015.

Attorney Matt Meaker speaks at employee misclassification event, April 1, 2015.

And so a working group created a pilot program that became EMCAP. It allows “candid talks about business decisions, not just legal issues.”

The keynote speaker at the University of Arizona auditorium in downtown Phoenix was Dr. David Weil. In public remarks and a half-hour interview afterward, he explored the landscape of misclassification, its roots and future possible solutions.

Highlighting the politically fraught nature of his position, Weil was the first Senate-confirmed Wage and Hour Administrator in a decade. As he did in his confirmation hearings (introduced by Sen. Elizabeth Warren), he spoke in Phoenix at length on misclassification.

A portion of his confirmation hearing is below; his remarks on misclassification begin at 2:40 (though Senator Warren’s intro is worth watching too):

Given that political landscape, it’s not surprising that Weil comes from a business school (at Boston University). In Phoenix, he described his business bona fides and said he was “proud of his decades in a business school.” And he described the mission of the Department of Labor as twofold: to understand that business is a fundamental part of our economy, and to protect workers.

But on the elevator-pitch version of the DOL’s mission, Weil is crystal-clear: “Our job is to make sure people get a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.”

The reality of the department’s resources complicates that vision considerably. Weil discussed the strategic thinking that must go into enforcement decisions. As DOL staffers gaze at a landscape with 7.3 million workplaces, they have become adept at reviewing data to identify red flags. They also look closely at industries that have had traditional problems with misclassification—construction, janitorial, hospitals, restaurants, and logistics, to name a few.

Weil used the title of his book The Fissured Workplace to explain more deeply the challenging predicaments presented by an evolving economy. As companies have decided to focus on “core competencies” and shed “ancillary” activities, efficiencies have increased, even as the number of people on the payroll has decreased.

But what happens to those ancillary functions and all the people who used to do them? Often, they remain, but are now employed by a third-party entity, ostensibly more adept at that particular function.

That kind of outsourcing and subcontracting is not new, Weil admits. But what is new is the stringent and detailed standards that the large brands impose on those third-party firms and their many employees. The larger companies need to ensure a consistent delivery of all their brand elements, and so they often control non-employees’ work lives down to the granular level. And they have new and developing technologies that allow the larger brands to monitor every moment in the lives of their products and the workers.

So … are those workers employees, or not? Often, the larger brands rely on a strategy that says “not.”

Weil and we may sympathize with the challenge faced by those companies. A branded cellphone must work exactly the same, wherever it was manufactured. A person checking into a chain hotel expects a nearly identical level of customer experience, whether they are in Dubuque or Dallas. But some companies may be crossing the misclassification line.

The challenge may be just as great for companies that are not in violation. As they view their industry’s landscape, what if they find they cannot compete without certain questionable strategies?

That, said Weil, is where groups like EMCAP come in. Yes, DOL enforcement must be vigorous, and collaborations with state departments of labor must be robust. But business buy-in and self-regulation are vital.

Wage and Hour Division Administrator Dr. David Weil speaking with American Subcontractors Association of Arizona CEO Carol Floco (at left) and Attorney Julie Pace. (Photo courtesy Wage and Hour Division.)

Wage and Hour Division Administrator Dr. David Weil speaking with American Subcontractors Association of Arizona CEO Carol Floco (at left) and Attorney Julie Pace. (Photo courtesy Wage and Hour Division.)

Via EMCAP and similar approaches nationwide, employers may gather and use dialogue and other methods to curtail bad practices.

“When you hear from a peer, a fellow employer,” said Weil, “that is incredibly powerful.”

He cites the Florida citrus industry as an example of successful self-policing. He said that when the DOL shared data about which subcontractors were regularly violative in misclassification and in regard to worker rights, larger producers asked for a copy of their maps. Pointing to the red dots indicating poor performers, some industry leaders said, “We don’t want to do business with the red bubbles.”

And that altered toolbox of strategies is just fine with the Wage & Hour Director.

“We’re not into a game of gotcha,” said Weil, “but compliance.”

Though enforcement is still a tool, he said, the primary focus must be “thinking creatively about changing business decisions.”

My unedited follow-up interview with Dr. David Weil is here:

 

And more background on EMCAP is here. We may follow up with Matt Meaker and his partner Helen Holden on the committee’s progress.

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Julie Pace

On this Change of Venue Friday, I share a nice story about a lawyer aiming to do good.

Julie Pace is an accomplished employment, OSHA and litigation lawyer, and she has written for Arizona Attorney Magazine before. But her skills extend far beyond workplace issues.

In yesterday’s Arizona Republic, the lead editorial praised her efforts to create harmony on multiple sides in the immigration debate. An accomplished photographer, Pace created a poster that emphasizes how the best result may come through unity, rather than rancor.

As the editorial opens:

Butterflies do not come to mind when you think of recent debates over immigration. Stinging hornets maybe. Or scorpions.

Not butterflies.

Local attorney Julie A. Pace wants to change that. She created a poster and hand delivered it to members of Congress this week. The artwork carries the words: “Left Wing, Right Wing: Come Together, Solve Immigration.” It shows a butterfly with composite wings. Her message: “Our left and right wings cannot fly on their own, but can achieve a beautiful result when brought together.”

One of Pace's butterfly creations

Her optimistic invitation for left and right to work together is a refreshing demonstration of confidence in the ability of those in Congress to act in the best interests of the entire nation. America needs comprehensive immigration reform to help secure the border, provide future labor needs and create a path to earned legalization for the undocumented.

 

Julie has established a website for her project. Here is the concept as described there:

“Left Wing, Right Wing, Come Together, Solve Immigration”

Immigration Butterfly Art by Julie A. Pace

“Everyone agrees that our country’s immigration system is broken. Differences of opinion on immigration have been used to divide the country and increase conflict. We need leadership to bring us together and solve immigration. Employment and litigation attorney Julie A. Pace has created an original work of art to unify efforts and to symbolize that bringing the diverse elements of our country together can achieve a beautiful, soaring, sustainable result. The diverse elements cannot live and fly on their own and need to be unified to be successful.”

More information is here.

And congratulations to Julie on her efforts.