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The Enforcer : Labor Chief Vicky Bradshaw Makes Sure Employers Toe the Line--or Else

September 20, 1993|S.J. DIAMOND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In her purse, Vicky Bradshaw carries a snapshot of a 9-year-old girl holding a sharp knife and smiling into the sun against a backdrop of grapevines. The knife, says Bradshaw, is for cutting grapes.

"And look," she adds, "she's wet her pants because there weren't any toilets for the field workers."

Bradshaw--California's labor commissioner--enforces laws that regulate child labor, unpaid overtime and minimum-wage violations, among other things. But the photo notwithstanding, she's hardly a white-collar crusader: She may respond to a human plight, and even point it out, but she doesn't dwell on it.

Bradshaw's a different breed of bureaucrat, and not just because she's the first female labor commissioner in the 112 years of the office. While she cares about exploited workers, she also has concerns about the competitive disadvantages of employers who obey the law. She considers limited resources and trimmed budgets a creative opportunity, and she likes plans that produce visible results--quickly.

"She's persistent, aggressive and pushy, but not in an offensive way," says Jose Millan, the senior deputy labor commissioner, who joined the agency in 1986. "She is definitely the right commissioner for her time, because she's good at making do with less. She's a walking, talking 'let's re-invent government' type, and that's the kind of person you want to bring into government service now, not people who want to keep things the way they've always been."

*

One recent morning, five labor investigators, including the commissioner, arrive unannounced at a Glendale factory. They fan out into the office and among the rows of sewing machines and piles of little denim overalls bearing the Baby Guess label.

One man sets up a laptop computer in the office to type in information while he interviews the factory's supervisor. Bradshaw, down from her San Francisco base for the day, seizes time cards and works the phones. Millan and two field investigators interview the Thai and Latino workers.

The inspectors find that the site, which is light, airy and clean, isn't registered with the state. Half the work force is temporary and paid in cash--well below minimum wage--just 12 cents a piece, averaging 180 units a day, or less than $22 in an 8-to-5 day. Often they have to work a sixth day--Saturday--at the same rates.

But Baby Guess, which contracted for the work, inspected and received it, and paid the bills, "had no knowledge of what was going on," says a Baby Guess official later, but promised Bradshaw when called from the site that the violations would be corrected immediately, the workers given back pay and the penalties paid.

*

The Division of Labor Standards Enforcement, which Bradshaw has headed as commissioner since October, 1991, comes under California's Department of Industrial Relations. It licenses and registers companies in certain industries--garment manufacturers, farm labor contractors, talent agents and movie studio teachers among them--handles employee complaints through 24 district offices, and goes out to investigate industries, says Bradshaw, "where employees don't know they can complain or are afraid or there's indication of a systemic problem."

Bradshaw is an unexpected presence at those inspections--raids, really--on fields and factories. She doesn't supervise; she participates, bagging confiscated clothes or directing pre-dawn traffic on farm roads.

She has also put unexpected vigor into the process. She created a task force of federal, state and county agencies that used to work separately, often overlapping. They now share information and investigation results, and instead of doing random inspections, they use that pooled information to target specific industries, regions or even companies that have proved troublesome.

The result: In the first nine months of this year, the task force did 624 inspections in agriculture alone, compared with 178 in all of 1991, says Millan. The inspectors issued 267 citations, compared with only 26 in all of 1991.

Bradshaw, 44, never expected that one day she'd be chasing down labor-law violators. She once assumed she'd go into the restaurant business, like her parents, who ran Luoto's in Campbell, Calif. She and her brother spent so much time working there "from the time we could wash a dish" that when she grew up and married, she had to learn to cook for two. "I could only cook for 36," she says.

She once worked keeping the books at a neighborhood Taco Bell while in college at UC Davis. But she found she preferred retailing, specifically department stores, which in the early 1970s were "locally owned and thriving, with a lot of opportunity for young women."

So after getting a master's degree in business and public administration from Cal State Sacramento, she started at Weinstocks as an assistant department manager in handbags.

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