Michael D Felsen, Esq.
Cushing-Gavin Award Recipient
Father Edward F. Boyle Award (Auxiliary), 2016
Michael has worked in the Boston Regional Office of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of the Solicitor (SOL) since 1979. Over that time—in the words of Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, MassCOSH Executive Director—he has solidly established a reputation as “the working person’s solicitor.” In this capacity, Michael has secured major legal victories in the areas of wage theft, overtime, safety standards, and a host of other crucial issues, winning tangible benefits and changes for working people.
Michael became Acting Regional Solicitor in 2009 and was appointed Regional Solicitor in June 2010. He has overseen committees and task forces addressing enterprise-wide enforcement, strategic management, diversity and inclusion, and innovation. He chaired DOL’s Boston Regional Executive Committee from 2011-2014, and has served on DOL’s Performance Review Board since 2010.
Early in his career, Michael litigated cases arising under the Fair Labor Standards Act, Occupational Safety and Health Act, Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”), and more. In 1991 Michael became counsel for ERISA, supervising all Labor Department litigation of Title I of ERISA in New England. In 2003, he was Acting Senior Project Manager at DOL’s International Labor Affairs Bureau handling the Eastern Europe portfolio.
Michael sits on a number of advisory boards and councils, including Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey’s Labor Advisory Council, the Jewish Labor Committee, the Cooperative Metropolitan Ministries, and the Boston Workmen’s Circle. As the son of two Nazi-era refugees, Michael’s justice work is deeply connected to his Jewish values.
Michael is a past chair of the Massachusetts Bar Association’s Labor and Employment Law Section, and clerked for Justice Paul J. Liacos of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. He holds a B.A. from Harvard (1971) and a J.D. from Northeastern (1978). He and his wife Tolle Graham – Labor and Environment Coordinator at MassCOSH – are the proud parents of three wonderful young men and grandparents of a sweet little fellow named Lev.
Emily Spieler, Edwin W. Hadley Professor of Law and Dean Emerita at Northeastern University School of Law, states that Michael works tirelessly “to expand the strategic use of the law,” using his “extraordinary vision and constancy of purpose in the pursuit of justice for working people.”
CGA Speech Transcript:
Thank you, Allyson, thank you, Labor Guild for this honor – especially cherished because it’s named for the beloved Father Boyle.
And though I didn’t really get to know him — though I wish I had – my wife Tolle, MassCOSH’s labor and environment coordinator and a proud member of the Steelworkers, met him when she was taking courses at the Guild and was working as an electronics tech at GE. That was well over 30 years ago. But each time he saw her, even decades later, Father Boyle was always warm and gracious — and he always remembered her name.
So, the Boyle award. I gratefully and humbly accept it, and appreciate it personally. But to me it says a lot more: I see it as a recognition of the critical role government – in this case the U.S. Labor Department – plays in protecting workers’ rights —while leveling the playing field for employers who take the high road, treat their workers with dignity, and comply with their responsibilities to them.
That mission to advance workers’ rights and to recognize their dignity is why I began my career with the Labor Department almost four decades ago, and is why I’m still there today.
I also see this award as a well-deserved recognition of the hard work and commitment of every member of the staff of the Boston Regional Solicitor’s office, that I’ve had the privilege of leading for the past seven and a half years – some of whom are here tonight.
… And I’d also like to recognize the hard work and commitment to the mission shown every day by DOL’s client agencies, and by our state and local agency colleagues, and our worker center partners. I want to recognize some of them who are here today:
Gladys Vega – Chelsea Collaborative; Tom Smith – Justice at Work; Lidia Ferreira – Brazilian Women’s Center; Al Vega – MassCOSH; Diego Low – MetroWest Workers Center; Heather Rowe – Fair Labor Division of the Mass AG’s office.
And DOL colleagues from OSHA and from our Office of Public Affairs
Thank you all — for all you do for workers — and for being here tonight.
These are tough times for workers:
- the traditional employee-employer relationship is fracturing, as more businesses use temp workers and subcontractors to staff their production operations, driving down pay and benefits
- the gig economy is ascendant, and with it worker protections and employment stability continue to erode
- misclassification of employees as independent contractors is rampant
- employees without work authorization – undocumented workers – are especially vulnerable, and subject to exploitation and abuse
- and, last but not least, far too small a segment of the workforce has the benefits of unionization
So, my office, and others around the country, have been trying to tackle at least some of these problems. I’m proud of the collaborative work we’ve done with our partners to make sure workers – and especially our most vulnerable workers — are treated as the law requires, and with the respect they deserve.
Let me tell you one of many stories.
Our Wage and Hour office got a call a few years ago from a worker at an animal hides processing plant in Chelsea, telling us that workers weren’t being paid properly.
A Wage and Hour investigator went to the plant, interviewed the workers, looked at the time and payroll records, and everything checked out.
But that’s only because thirteen other Spanish-speaking workers from El Salvador, who were undocumented, had been whisked away to a remote location, so they couldn’t speak with the investigator.
Fortunately, the worker who had called the first time called Wage and Hour again, and suggested they come back unannounced, which they did. They found the undocumented, off-the-books, workers there and they interviewed them. And what they heard was a harrowing tale of gross underpayment and abuse.
A few days later, those workers were fired.
To cut to the chase: We sued the company, and resolved the case with the company paying these undocumented workers the minimum wage and overtime and an equal amount in liquidated damages, plus $10,000 each in additional damages on account of their having been fired in retaliation for cooperating with the DOL investigation.
The result: The company was ordered to pay $925,000 to the workers, plus $50,000 in penalties.
These workers had been taken advantage of because that employer figured he was safe – they weren’t documented so they wouldn’t speak out.
And for years, he was right – until a brave worker did speak out and call us. And when the first call didn’t do the trick, he called us a second time.
And that time it worked. And these workers got the wage justice and the dignity they were entitled to — thanks to DOL’s efforts — and also to the invaluable assistance provided in that case by the Chelsea Collaborative and Greater Boston Legal Services.
And competitor businesses that play by the rules, and respect the law, and pay their workers properly — they got justice too. Because a business that undercut them by cheating its workers was forced to pay dearly – in cash and under the harsh gaze of public scrutiny.
So, what keeps me and my colleagues at DOL going to work with a passion every day?
It’s doing whatever we can to make sure that workers actually get what the law requires:
- whether it’s a full paycheck with time and half for overtime hours worked;
- or a safe workplace that allows them to go home every night with life and limb in tact;
- or the health and pension benefits their employer promised them;
- or a workplace free of discrimination
- or the right to speak out and complain when their employer falls short.
Because every worker – skilled or unskilled; English-speaking or not; black, white or brown; immigrant or non-immigrant; Muslim or Sikh, Christian or Jew; documented or undocumented – deserves to be treated fairly, and with dignity and respect.
Those are the values that my colleagues and I cherish.
And those are the values that must prevail – from one day to the next, from one year to the next, and from one administration to the next.
It’s in that spirit that I accept the Boyle Award.
December 2, 2016