From tackling payroll fraud to suing Trump: Nessel recognized as leading AG on workers’ rights

By: - September 7, 2020 7:21 am

Dana Nessel after a House Judiciary Committee hearing, Feb. 19, 2019 | Ken Coleman

Attorney General Dana Nessel is one of the leading state AGs in protecting workers’ rights, according to a new report published by the Washington, D.C.-based Economic Policy Institute (EPI) prior to Labor Day.

The economic justice think tank details the more prominent role state attorneys general have taken in labor rights issues since mid-2018 and lists specific ways each has advanced workers’ protections, both on the state and federal level.

“While there are variations in state attorney general office resources and jurisdiction, these offices often have a range of powers that can enable them to advance and defend workplace protections and ensure that employers comply with the law,” EPI Senior Fellow Terri Gerstein writes in the report.

Nessel, who was elected in 2018, is the first Democratic attorney general in Michigan since 2002, when Jennifer Granholm left the post after being elected governor. Nessel has taken on a number of pro-worker initiatives in a departure from her GOP predecessors, Mike Cox and Bill Schuette, as highlighted in EPI’s report.

AG plans clampdown on ‘payroll fraud’

Payroll fraud unit and enforcement

In the last few years, Michigan has joined six other states in establishing a new dedicated workers’ rights unit within its state AG office. As recently as 2015, only three states had such units.

The EPI notes that establishing a dedicated unit to labor issues with its own legal team can help deter labor violations, listing Nessel’s creation of a Payroll Fraud Unit in April 2019 as an example — several months after the unit was established, a National Law Review article urged Michigan employers to “act before the Payroll Fraud Enforcement Unit comes knocking.”

“Shortly after taking office, Attorney General Nessel created the Payroll Fraud Enforcement Unit, the first of its kind in the Michigan Department of Attorney General,” Jarvi said. “The unit works closely with federal and state partners to review complaints and take action against businesses that fail to ensure their workers get what they’re owed.

“Companies that blatantly choose profits over paying their employees wages, or those that fail to properly classify their workers are not only hurting their staff members, they’re shortchanging the taxpayers of Michigan millions of dollars in lost tax revenue and that is unacceptable,” Jarvi continued.

“The Attorney General’s office will take action to hold those businesses accountable and ensure workers are treated fairly under the law.”

Nessel exploring criminal, civil charges in payroll fraud cases

Nessel’s payroll fraud unit announced its first criminal case in 2019, issuing 13 criminal charges against Lansing small business owner Camron Gnass for failing to deposit more than $52,000 of deferred retirement contributions into their accounts or paying the employer match.

Just one week later, Nessel filed a motion to intervene in a lawsuit against the owners of a closing restaurant business that had allegedly failed to pay employees their final paychecks.

Enforcing COVID-19 stay-home orders

During the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of governors have instituted stay-home orders — some of which have been enforced by their state attorney general.

“The activities of the Michigan AG’s office provide an illustrative example of this activity,” Gerstein writes, pointing to Nessel’s office sending cease-and-desist letters to JoAnn Fabrics and Menards when JoAnn Fabrics was open despite being a non-essential business and Menards’ business practices were violating Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-home orders.

It also notes that Nessel’s office created a frequently asked questions (FAQ) section on its website about labor rights under the orders, which has been an important resource for both employers and employees.

Worker legislation

The EPI notes Nessel has played a particularly key role among other AGs in promoting pro-worker legislative proposals, including some that would strengthen employee whistleblower protections, toughen penalties for payroll fraud and more.

Nessel nixes ‘partisan’ federal request to probe Whitmer on nursing homes

UI scams

Protecting the state unemployment insurance (UI) systems and preventing scams have also become areas of focus for some AGs. In Michigan, Nessel established an UI Insurance Fraud Task Force with plans to persecute those who exploit the system.

Multi-state actions

The EPI notes that state attorneys general have been collaborating much more on labor and workers’ rights issues in the last few years than they have in the past. The report lists a number of multi-state legal actions and other efforts that AGs have collaborated on, many of which Nessel has been involved with.

Those efforts involving Nessel include:

  • A joint lawsuit filed by 18 AG offices challenging federal revisions to the joint-employer rule. (In June, a federal district court denied a motion to dismiss this challenge).
  • A joint letter to President Donald Trump urging worker safety in meatpacking plants during the COVID-19 pandemic
  • A coalition of 19 AGs filing an amicus brief in May in support of Washington against a challenge to the state’s paid sick leave law by an airline association
  • A coalition sending letters to Amazon and Whole Foods seeking information about their paid sick leave, safety and social distancing practices and urging better policies during COVID-19

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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins covers the environment, Native issues and criminal justice for the Advance. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service.