SACRAMENTO — A veteran state labor attorney is accusing the administration of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of firing him because he questioned efforts to rewrite controversial regulations governing employee meal breaks.
Miles Locker, a 50-year-old civil servant who worked for state government for more than two decades, was dismissed from his $112,980-a-year job at the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement this month.
In a 22-page complaint detailing Locker's dismissal, labor standard officials charged him with trying to undermine his supervisors' efforts to interpret state wage and hour laws. The complaint, relying in part on e-mails taken from Locker's office computer, called him disloyal because he "secretly communicated ... disagreements" with his supervisors to lawyers outside the government.
The complaint also accused Locker, who is appealing his firing to the state Personnel Board, of making comments last year that ridiculed then-Labor Commissioner Donna Dell.
In his written response to the charges, Locker denied violating his fiduciary responsibility to his supervisors.
Assemblyman Paul Koretz (D-West Hollywood) called the firing "a politically motivated witch hunt." Koretz, chairman of the Assembly Labor and Employment Committee, said he would ask administration officials to explain the dismissal next month at a specially called hearing.
"It seems like they are going after Miles for disloyalty to the administration," Koretz said.
Dean Fryer, a spokesman for the Department of Industrial Relations, the parent agency of the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement, said politics and policy had nothing to do with Locker's dismissal.
"The overarching issue is really about ethics and commonly accepted principles guiding attorney-client relations," Fryer said.
Locker traces his dismissal in part to comments he made at a July labor law seminar sponsored by the Bar Assn. of San Francisco. Locker said he was speaking as a private citizen when he expressed disagreement with administration officials and business groups over a long-running dispute about workers' rights to meal breaks and punishments for employers who violate state wage and hour laws.
The restaurant industry and business groups have been urging the governor to issue new workplace rules to loosen requirements that employers provide a mandatory, unpaid meal break after workers' first five hours on the job. Employers also want regulators to interpret state law in a way that would cut by two-thirds the amount of money paid to workers who successfully file complaints against their bosses.
Under pressure from organized labor in the wake of the defeat of Schwarzenegger-backed initiatives in the November election, the administration in January ditched a set of proposed meal-break regulations that had drawn fire from worker advocates. The administration said it planned to draw up a new set of regulations while working more closely with employers and labor unions.
Koretz said he was puzzled by Locker's firing because Schwarzenegger appears to be trying to improve relations with Democrats and labor unions.
The firing also is an added twist in the tale of meal-break regulations, which have a tangled history.
Just after Schwarzenegger's election in late 2003, industry lobbyists began pressing the governor's office for changes in a law passed in 2000 that gave workers a legal claim to file for an hour's pay for each lunch break lost. Employers wanted authority to ask workers to voluntarily waive their legal rights to lunch breaks. They also wanted to reduce, to one year from three, the period during which businesses could be fined for meal-break violations.
The California Chamber of Commerce and the restaurant owners argued that the proposed regulations would give all workers more flexibility to leave work earlier in the day. Moreover, they said, waiters would earn more tips if they were not forced to take breaks during busy periods.
Labor unions, however, complained that employers would be able to pressure low-paid employees into giving up their lunch hours.
The Schwarzenegger administration issued "emergency" regulations in December 2004, which took effect immediately. Critics scoffed at the alleged emergency, forcing the governor to withdraw the regulations after 10 days.
In early 2005, the administration submitted new, nonemergency regulations, which it touted in a video news release featuring a former television reporter who now works for the state, that was aired by some television stations. A Sacramento Superior Court judge in December ruled that the production and distribution of the videos violated state law. The administration abandoned the renewed effort in January.