WASHINGTON — The Labor Department wants to lend a helping hand to small businesses.

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Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, in a speech to the National Federation of Independent Business Friday, unveiled a new initiative to help employers comply with often complex, burdensome and confusing federal labor regulations.

“We are going to help make sense of the regulatory jungle that small business owners have to comply with because that is the best way to make worker protections work,” said Chao, adding there is a new “culture of responsibility” at the agency.

To that end, the agency will create a new position, the compliance assistance director, who will coordinate efforts among Labor’s divisions to ensure they are helping employers comply with regulations.

“It’s not fair that you are expected to know every rule and regulation without any decent help from the people who write them, promulgate them and penalize you if you aren’t abiding by them,” she said.

Chao also announced that the agency will make publicly available the handbooks Wage and Hour inspectors use when they are investigating businesses. In addition, Labor will set up a new toll-free information line and call center for employers with questions about laws ranging from pay and leave to workplace safety to health and pension benefits.

Chao stressed she will “forbid” DOL employees from referring employers for investigation just for inquiring about regulations. Compliance assistance has been the rallying cry of Labor officials in the business-friendly Bush administration.

UNITE has criticized Labor’s garment industry policy under the Bush administration, which has dimmed the spotlight on retailers and focused more on compliance and enforcement.

As for key compliance rates with labor laws in key manufacturing cities, including minimum wage and overtime, Los Angeles has had a poor track record in recent years, while New York has shown some apparent improvement. San Francisco has a higher compliance record.”

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