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State Will Pair Labor Inspectors After Agent's Arrest

Apparel: Commissioner is enacting changes. Fewer garment shop inspections are likely.

September 17, 1997|DON LEE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A day after public disclosures that a veteran labor inspector was arrested for extortion, the state's top garment enforcer said Tuesday that he will enact sweeping changes in the government's inspection program. Among them are staffing moves that are likely to sharply reduce the number of garment business inspections.

Agents will now be required to work with one or more partners when conducting garment raids, said Jose Millan, the state's labor commissioner. Because state investigators routinely went out on assignments alone in an effort to cover more ground, the new rule could as much as halve the number of annual inspections of apparel shops, Millan acknowledged. Last year the state inspected about 800 shops, mostly garment contractors.

Millan said he also plans to do case reviews of inspections every month, not every quarter. And he said he will enlist an outside agency, such as the state Department of Justice, to scrutinize the practices and procedures of his department. State labor inspectors will also be rotated out of garment duty after a maximum of two years, meaning that several longtime garment investigators will soon be reassigned.

"They're going to be angry about it," Millan said of his staff, whom he said he will brief at a meeting today in Santa Ana. "But I think they'll agree that [reassignments] are necessary to regain the credibility and trust with the employer community."

Millan's new policies, which he said are effective immediately, are aimed at preventing problems such as those alleged to involve Howard Hernandez, the agent who was arrested last week on suspicion of extorting $8,000 from a small clothing operator. Hernandez had worked on garment shop inspections for 17 years. In the case that led to his arrest, he had twice visited the shop alone.

Authorities say Hernandez was caught in a sting operation in Montebello. They say he was seen accepting money from a middleman who allegedly worked with Hernandez in shaking down the owner of a Los Angeles shop called Two Thumbs Up Apparel Inc. The middleman, Edwin Kim, was also arrested, and state Department of Justice agents are investigating whether Hernandez may have extorted other garment operators, particularly Korean American contractors.

Hernandez, 46, has been placed on administrative leave with pay. He has declined to comment.

Garment shop operators and other industry executives and consultants generally applauded Millan's steps but also said the agency should have teamed up inspectors long ago.

"It's always better to pair up teams for checks and balances," said Bernard Lax, president of the Coalition of Apparel Industries of California, a lobbying group. "It's something that should have been done whether Howard Hernandez's case happened or not."

The prospect of having fewer inspections is Millan's biggest concern about the new policies. With labor violations still plaguing the industry and with the onset of higher state minimum wage rates that could provoke more infractions, Millan said it is no time to reduce pressure on violators.

The state's targeted garment inspection program has been in existence since 1992. Each year it has beefed up the number of investigations. The program has 35 inspectors, more than half of whom were hired in the last year.

"Unfortunately, with a limited number of inspectors that means fewer inspections," he said. "But at least inspections will be done without a cloud of controversy."

But Lax and others also said that the pairing of inspectors could result in higher-quality investigations, which in the long run would be more effective in cracking down on labor abusers.

"It sounds promising," said Patrick Oh, general manager of the Korean-American Garment Industry Assn. Oh, whose Los Angeles-based group has 800 member businesses, said his members' biggest complaint is that the agency levies unfairly large fines.

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