WASHINGTON, DC—Deeming the move "regrettable but necessary," White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card announced Monday that Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao's work hours will be scaled back to 30 per week starting Jan. 26.
"It's merely a cost-cutting measure and says absolutely nothing about Elaine, who's done wonderful work for the Bush Administration since she came on board in 2001," Card said. "Once the economy turns around, the first thing we'll do is return Elaine to her original hours. That's a promise."
Chao's hours will be limited to six per day during a regular Monday-to-Friday workweek, her salary will be cut by 25 percent, and she'll lose the privileges of working flextime hours and earning time-and-a-half pay on weekends and holidays. In addition, Chao's relegation to part-time status means she'll no longer be eligible for health-insurance coverage, matching 401K contributions, or parking validation.
Chao expressed dismay over the decision during a cigarette break in the parking lot of the Labor Department's Frances Perkins Building.
"I sorta knew what was up when President Bush called me into the Oval Office, and Chief Brownnose was standing there beside him with this bogus sad look on his face," said Chao, referring to Card by the derogatory nickname reportedly used by the members of the White House staff. "The president said he was real sorry, but he either had to cut my hours or let me go. What could I do? I need the job."
Chao inhaled on her cigarette and added: "God, and I'm still making payments on that stupid rear-projection television."
On CNN's Crossfire Tuesday, Washington Post columnist David Broder predicted that Chao's workload will not be lightened to reflect her new, truncated work day.
"This is a woman who's used to working long hours and traveling extensively," Broder said. "While there may be some initial efforts to limit her duties, I doubt they'll last long."
Broder added: "Chao is the victim of her own administration's policies, which place economic issues like employment and job security second to foreign-policy matters and big-business interests."
As Labor Secretary, Chao is well aware of labor trends like corporate downsizing and the decline in personal income.
"Tables and graphs mapping the worsening situation of the average American worker crossed my desk all the time, but I never thought any of that stuff would affect me," Chao said. "I don't see [Treasury Secretary John] Snow fearing for his job. Then again, he's in charge of the money. The bigwigs see 'labor' in my job title, and they think, 'Hey, we can push her around.'"
Continued Chao: "If I were [Health and Human Services Secretary] Tommy Thompson, I'd start looking through the classifieds."
Several Cabinet secretaries have expressed dissatisfaction with the ways in which Chao's reduced schedule affects them. Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton reported that Card has already begun to foist extra Labor Department work on her.
"My assistant dropped a report titled 'Workplace Safety And Its Effect On Profitability' in my inbox the other day," Norton said. "It had a Post-it note on it from Card that said, 'Can you give this speech for Elaine Chao next Monday?' That's total crap. I told Brownnose 'No way.' How can he expect me to do work I wasn't even appointed for, for no additional pay?"
Card said he did not play a deciding role in the reduction of Chao's hours.
"Look, my role is to manage the staff, not make final decisions about salaries," Card said. "My job could be on the line here, too, incidentally. The president keeps saying, 'We gotta tighten our belts. We gotta cut where we can.' It's getting so bad that if George sees somebody standing near the water cooler in the West Wing, he asks me, 'What's that guy's name? Are you giving him enough to do, Andy?' I swear, he and [Bush political advisor Karl] Rove are walking the halls looking for an excuse to can someone."
Chao said she remains uncertain about her future. Mindful of the stagnant job market, she said she has no choice but to remain with the Bush Administration for the foreseeable future.
"A friend offered me a full-time position on the board of directors of her bank, but the pay was even less than what I make here," Chao said. "I thought I could do some freelance data analysis for extra scratch, but they've got my hours set up so that I have to come into the office every day. With the commute, it feels like a 40-hour work week, anyway."
"Whoa, look at the time," said Chao, glancing at her cell phone. "It's already 3 p.m.? Sorry, gotta go punch out now. New rules."