Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry (DLI) commissioner Nancy Leppink was in familiar territory last week as she visited Duluth and the North Shore.

Leppink was born and raised in Two Harbors until she was 16 years old. Leppink was in the area to meet with the North East Area Labor Council regarding new wage theft legislation.

Leppink's connection to the Shore

Leppink's father was a doctor who moved his family to Two Harbors in the 1950s to join a cooperative medical practice. He ended up staying in the area as the St. Louis County public health commissioner after Leppink's parents divorced.

"He bought an old fishing house on Lake Superior just north of Knife River, which he added to and remodeled to make into a home," Leppink said. "That's where I'm sitting right now. It's become more of a family home where we come to spend time on the shore."

Leppink moved with her mother and younger brother to the Twin Cities, but she says she has fond memories of growing up in Two Harbors.

Laboring through the years

After graduating college and law school, Leppink was determined to work in human rights and discrimination. She started working in the attorney general's office under the umbrella of human rights law. After a few years, she shifted her focus to the labor and employment law unit of the AG's office, where she stayed for almost 15 years.

"I found during that time is that a lot of cases would end up on my desk," Leppink said. "This was in part because the agency didn't really have the necessary competence and capacity to do effective investigations and resolve disputes that, arguably, should have been resolved much earlier in the process. We had a lot of people committed to the issues, but who didn't have the basic skills needed to conduct an investigation."

Leppink became more involved in developing training and improving the capacity of investigators. She served as general council for the department she now leads for 10 years.

"That was great. It was interesting but also challenging at times," Leppink said. "And of course during that time, administrations changed, so on a frequent basis, you were working for a different commissioner with a different political point of view.”

Leppink took these lessons of working with varying political perspectives with her as she was appointed by the Obama Administration to be the deputy administrator of the Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor and led the division as its acting administrator.

"I was originally hired to be the deputy admin, but the person who had been nominated to be the administrator ultimately had to withdraw from consideration," Leppink said. "The Senate was holding up her confirmation and it was taking a long time, so she had to withdraw and I became acting administrator and remained there through President Obama's first term."

However, after four years working at the federal level of labor, Leppink decided to not seek consideration for a second term as acting administrator. She had been commuting between Washington D.C. and the Twin Cities during that time, which was too hard on her family. Little did she know her next position would take her farther than the East Coast.

During June 2014 to February 2019, Leppink served as a branch chief for the International Labour Organization in Geneva, Switzerland. In that role, she was responsible for its international work to assist the governments and the employer and worker organizations of its 187 member states to improve their labor administration, labor inspection and occupational safety and health capacities.

"Being in Switzerland for five years was an amazing opportunity," Leppink said. "It was eye opening and challenging. I had the opportunity to work with and engage with many countries who are doing many innovative things."

Leppink spent a lot of time thinking, reading theory, and studying practices from around the globe to develop her new approach to achieving strategic compliance. Now she's had the chance to apply what she'd developed overseas to Minnesota in her new role as DLI commissioner.

New wage theft legislation

Wage theft occurs when employers do not pay their workers they are owed for the work they have performed. It’s estimated up to 40,000 Minnesota workers pursue complaints of wage theft each year because they have been denied a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.

Legislation was passed in May that will invest $3.1 million in new funding over the next two years in the Department of Labor and Industry’s enforcement of the state’s wage and hour laws. Leppink said the funding is crucial to improving the department’s ability to enforce compliance.

“Coming from the other side of the table, I understand the need for additional staff,” Leppink said. “If you give the staff the resources they need to complete their investigations and do their jobs, it means the problems are addressed sooner and people can move on more quickly. Less cases will move into litigation, which takes so much more time and resources.”

The new Minnesota Wage Theft law will create additional protections for workers, including adding criminal penalties for employers who commit wage theft and will go into effect Aug. 1. To read more about wage theft or Nancy Leppink’s work, visit dli.mn.gov.