M. Patricia Smith’s appointment as Solicitor at the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) gives unions, low-wage immigrant workers and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) a friend in a very high place.

Labor Solicitor M. Patricia Smith


In her role as DOL’s top law enforcement official, Smith will be involved with many OSHA matters including implementation of new standards, settlements for workplace violations and discrimination cases involving whistleblowers who have been victimized for calling attention to workplace hazards. An attorney and labor advocate for over 30 years, Smith, New York’s Labor Commissioner before coming to DOL, is known for her aggressive pursuit of employers that violate minimum wage and overtime laws. Her diligence has secured more than $20 million in back pay for thousands of immigrants who toil in minimum wage jobs.

Prior to her tenure as Labor Commissioner, Smith worked at the Labor Bureau in the Office of the New York State Attorney General. She held various positions, including that of Chief. Smith has also worked on behalf of unemployment claimants and federal job training programs, and she has appeared before the United States Supreme Court where she won two Employment Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) cases.

Smith, 56, is a graduate of Trinity College in Washington, D.C., and New York University School of Law.

Her latest effort to keep workers from getting stiffed by unscrupulous employers is the New York Wage and Hour Watch. This program trains everyday people to spot labor violations at low-wage businesses like car washes, laundromats, restaurants and supermarkets.

A $2.3 million settlement related to minimum wage and overtime violations reached with a restaurant owner last March proves the watch’s success. The money, the largest amount ever collected in a single case, is going to 813 workers, mostly immigrants from Asia.

The wage program is also why Smith’s confirmation was delayed for months. President Obama nominated her for the DOL’s third-ranked position in March 2009, but Senate Republicans – expressing concern that Wage Watch was actually a union organization tool that Smith wants expanded – held up the vote. Democrats finally overcame the opposition, and Smith was approved in February.

As DOL solicitor, Smith oversees litigation, policy development and the department’s wage and hour division. She also serves as general counsel to Labor Secretary Hilda l.Solis, herself a proponent of causes like increasing minimum wage and affordable health care.

Smith’s appointment is further indication of change at the DOL and OSHA. Once again, the DOL/OSHA focus is on the health, safety and welfare of working families. With Smith’s pledge to bring a “philosophy of proactive enforcement” to the Solicitor position, these efforts show promise for success.

[Janet Lubman Rathner]