Elaine Lan Chao ( 趙小蘭 born March 26, 1953) served as the 24th United States Secretary of Labor in the Cabinet of President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2009. She was the first Asian Pacific American woman to be appointed to a President’s cabinet in American history. Chao was the only cabinet member to serve under George W. Bush for his entire administration. She is married to U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), the current U.S. Senate Minority Leader.
Childhood and education
The eldest of six daughters, Chao was born in Taipei, Taiwan, to James S.C. Chao (趙錫成 Zhào Xīchéng), a powerful and well-connected Shanghainese entrepreneur, and Ruth Mu-lan Chu (朱木蘭 Zhū Mùlán), a historian. She attended Tsai Hsing Elementary School in kindergarten and first grade. Her parents had fled to Taiwan from mainland China after the Chinese Communists took over as a result of the Chinese Civil War in 1949. After her father settled in the U.S. and established himself in the shipping business, Chao came to the U.S. at age eight. Chao’s father started Foremost Shipping Corp in 1964 and capitalized on exponential growth in trade with China. She attended Syosset High School, an affluent public school in Long Island, New York.
Chao received her B.A. in economics from Mount Holyoke College in 1975 and her MBA from the Harvard Business School in 1979. Chao also studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dartmouth College, and Columbia University.
With a family background in the shipping business, in 1986 Chao became Deputy Administrator of the Maritime Administration in the US Department of Transportation. From 1988 to 1989, she served as Chairwoman of the Federal Maritime Commission.
In 1989, President George H. W. Bush nominated Chao to be Deputy Secretary of Transportation. From 1991 to 1992, Chao was Director of the Peace Corps. She was the first Asian Pacific American to serve in any of these positions. She expanded the Peace Corps’s presence in Eastern Europe and Central Asia by establishing the first Peace Corps programs in Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, and other newly independent states of the former Soviet Union.
United Way and Heritage Foundation
Following her service in the government, Chao worked for four years as President and Chief Executive Officer of United Way of America. She is credited with returning credibility and public trust back to the organization after an embarrassing financial mismanagement scandal involving former United Way of America president William Aramony. From 1996 until her appointment as Secretary of Labor, Chao was a Distinguished Fellow with the conservative Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank. She returned to the Heritage Foundation after leaving the government in January 2009.
Elaine Chao as Secretary of Labor.
During Secretary Chao’s tenure, the Department of Labor updated the white collar overtime regulations under the Fair Labor Standards Act. Complaints from the business community about overtime-related litigation spurred the Bush Administration to update the regulations.
In 2003, the Department achieved the first major update of union financial disclosure regulations in more than 40 years, giving rank and file members enhanced information on how their dues are spent.
After analyzing 70,000 closed case files from 2005 to 2007 the Government Accountability Office reported that the Department’s Wage and Hour Division inadequately investigated complaints from low-wage and minimum wage workers alleging that employers failed to pay the federal minimum wage, required overtime, and failed to issue a last paycheck.
A 2008 report by the department’s inspector general found that despite implementation of the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act of 2006 (MINER Act), mine safety regulators did not conduct federally required inspections at more than 14 percent of the country’s 731 underground coal mines during the previous year. The number of worker deaths in mining accidents more than doubled to 47. A 2009 internal audit appraising an Occupational Safety and Health Administration initiative under the Bush administration to focus special attention on problem workplaces revealed that OSHA employees failed to gather needed data, conducted uneven inspections and enforcement, and sometimes failed to discern repeat fatalities because records misspelled the companies’ names or failed to notice when two subsidiaries with the same owner were involved, resulting in preventable workplace fatalities.
The longest-serving Secretary of Labor since Frances Perkins, 1933-45, under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Chao was the only original Cabinet member who remained in the Bush Administration in the same position to which she was appointed.
* 1983: White House Fellow, Office of Policy Development, the White House
* 1986: Deputy Administrator, Maritime Administration, US Department of Transportation
* 1988–89: Chairwoman, Federal Maritime Commission
* 1989: Deputy Secretary of Transportation
* 1991–92: Director, Peace Corps
* 1992–96: President and Chief Executive Officer, United Way of America
* 1996-2001: Distinguished Fellow, Heritage Foundation
* 2001–09: U.S. Secretary of Labor
* 2009-Present: Distinguished Fellow, Heritage Foundation
In 1993, Chao married Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican Leader of the United States Senate. She has three stepdaughters from her husband’s previous marriage to Sherrill Redmon: Eleanor (Elly), Claire, and Porter.