Thursday, March 26, 2009

New Labor Secretary Inherits a Mess

Under a Labor Department that has been mismanaged for years, uncounted numbers of workers – perhaps millions -- became victims of wage theft by employers. In testimony before a Congressional committee, the Government Accounting Office (GAO) yesterday described how sloppy enforcement of the law left low-wage workers particularly vulnerable to having employers steal their earnings.

Following up on scandals reported in the media, the GAO assigned a team of undercover agents to pose as workers or employers to test how the field offices of the department’s wage and hour division handled 10 types of complaints typically voiced across the country.

Here are three examples given of how department employees dealt with fictitious violations of minimum pay, child labor, and other issuest under their jurisdiction.

n A receptionist in Virginia paid less than the minimum wage: the department’s investigator accepted without question the employer’s refusal to pay back wages and counseled the office worker to file a private lawsuit.
n A meat packer in California using children to run heavy equipment: four months after receiving this anonymous tip, the wage and hour division office had still not conducted any investigative work, and never recorded the complaint in the department’s data base.
n A house painter in Texas who did not receive his final paycheck: the division employee accepted the employer’s word that he would pay, and closed the case as “agreed to pay” despite the painter’s claim that he got not a cent.

The department’s statistics on back wages collected, and the number of employees receiving their back pay, are overstated, according to the GAO, because “an unknown number” of complaints recorded as resolved did not in fact result in the worker’s receiving the back pay due

More than 100,000,000 workers are covered under federal labor laws enforced by the wage and hour division (WHD). The GAO’s overall assessment was that the WHD had “an ineffective system that [particularly] discourages wage theft complaints.

The new Secretary of Labor, Hilda L. Solis, who has been in office less than two weeks, vowed to take the GAO findings seriously. The understaffed WHD will be adding 250 new investigators.

Under Secretary Solis, the Department of Labor is set to return to the mission for which it was founded in 1913: “to foster, promote, and develop the welfare of working people.”

Print Page

No comments: