Administrative Law

Feds are Gearing Up for Wage-Theft Enforcement Campaign

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Working undercover to investigate whether the federal watchdog charged with enforcing U.S. labor laws is doing its job, agents of the Governmental Accountability Office found that nine of 10 complaints it made as purported aggrieved workers were mishandled.

Instead of investigating as required, the Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor failed to follow up on complaints, including one that underage children were working during school hours at a California meatpacking plant and using dangerous machinery, the recounts the New York Times, in an article about an apparent gearing-up by the federal government to begin a much more aggressive effort to enforce such laws.

In a report scheduled to be released today, the nonpartisan auditing arm of Congress also says it took the division’s Miami office four months to return multiple calls by an undercover agent posing as a dishwasher who hadn’t been paid overtime for 19 weeks. At that point, he was told an investigation could not begin for 8 to 10 months, the Times writes.

Although the division has a mandate to pursue violations of U.S. wage laws, a number of low-paid workers are being told they need to file private litigation to enforce their rights, according to the report. In other cases, the division has dropped the ball, it says—at one point allowing an employer to make a $1,000 settlement in a case involving more than $200,000 in unpaid overtime.

Serious cases are mishandled by the division nearly 20 percent of the time, as shown by delayed investigations, inadequate penalties and a lack of needed enforcement litigation, the report finds.

Labor Secretary Hilda Solis says she is concerned about the report, intends to enforce the law, and is seeking to increase the division’s staff from about 500 to 750, the Times reports.

“We have a crisis in wage theft, and the Department of Labor has not been aggressive enough in recent years,” says Kim Bobo of Interfaith Worker Justice. “The new secretary of labor says she’s the new sheriff in town, but I’m concerned she’s facing the wild, wild West of wage theft.”

A congressional hearing is scheduled today concerning wage and hour enforcement. The nine-month GAO investigation was requested by U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), who chairs the House Education and Labor Committee.

Related coverage: “Amid Legal Job Fair Gloom, Applicants Told of Possible New Federal Legal Jobs”

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