The U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division has failed to effectively enforce federal wage laws, according to a Government Accountability Office report issued on July 15th, 2008.
From fiscal years 1997 to 2007, the number of WHD’s enforcement actions decreased by more than a third, from approximately 47,000 in 1997 to just under 30,000 in 2007. The WHD defended the trend. It stated that it decided to enforce fewer, but more time-consuming comprehensive claims. It also states that the decrease resulted from more careful screening out of unmerited claims at the intake stage. WHD admits that part of the decrease is attributed to a 20% reduction in investigative staff.
The GAO found that the WHD rarely imposed statutory penalties on employers. WHD assessed penalties for 6 percent of the enforcement actions conducted between 2000 and 2007.
The GAO cited several examples where the WHD found violations of federal labor law, but failed to follow through with enforcement.
In one case, a homeless woman receiving free room and board while working as a night attendant at a nursing home alleged her employer had failed to pay her wages for an entire year. According to the WHD, the employer admitted it had failed to pay any wages to the night attendant and considered the room and board to be pay, but stated it did not have any money to pay the back wages. The WHD dropped the case and advised the night attendant of her right to file a private lawsuit. The employer was still in business as of June 2008.
An another case, the an employee alleged he was not paid for overtime. The WHD investigator did not perform any actions for 15 months citing a backlog of cases. Investigation was dropped after 15 months when the investigator saw a news article showing that the business in question had closed
The GAO further criticized the WHD for focusing on too narrow a range of industries. “WHD focused on the same industries from 1997 to 2007. The agency primarily targeted four industry groups: agriculture, accommodation and food services, manufacturing, and health care and social services.” The WHD did not react to information from its commissioned studies on low wage industries in which FLSA violations are likely to occur. The GAO concludes “WHD may not be addressing the needs of workers most vulnerable to FLSA violations.”
WHD’s data tracking hides its inefficiencies. “The extent to which WHD’s activities have improved FLSA compliance is unknown because WHD frequently changes both how it measures and how it reports on its performance,” reports the GAO. “When agencies provide trend data in their performance reports, decision makers can compare current and past progress in meeting long-term goals.” WHD did just the opposite. “While WHD’s long-term goals and strategies generally remained the same from 1997 to 2007, WHD often changed how it measured its progress, keeping about 90 percent of its measures for 2 years or less.”
As quoted in the New York Times, a Labor Department press release highlighted the pay it has recovered for employees. Recovery of wages “more than doubled to $220,613,703 in 2007 from $96,719,108 in 1997.” The DOL said that 341,624 employees received back wages in 2007, up from 189,244 10 years earlier.” The DOL added: “The “Wage and Hour Division is delivering pay for workers, not a payday for trial lawyers.”
To view the New York Times article, click here.
Christopher W. Olmsted, Esq.
Barker Olmsted & Barnier, APLC