If you’re a wage worker and your employer is violating the Federal Labor Standards Act (FLSA) by paying you less than minimum wage, denying you overtime, or misclassifying you as a manager or independent contractor, don’t go running to the Department of Labor (DOL) for help anytime soon. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the DOL’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD) is incompetent. What’s worse, the latest report, released on March 29, represents the third time in less than a year that the GAO has found the Wage and Hour Division’s performance a failure when it came to enforcing FLSA regulations and helping the people it was designed to serve.
According to the GAO report, the WHD “frequently responded inadequately to complaints, leaving low wage workers vulnerable to wage theft.” The GAO came to this conclusion after conducting a broad undercover investigation in which it filed 10 fictitious worker complaints in WHD district offices throughout the country.
“The undercover tests revealed sluggish response times, a poor complaint intake process, and failed conciliation attempts, among other problems,” the report states. The GAO also documented one case in which a WHD employee lied about investigating a claim when actually no work at all was done to investigate the fictitious claim.
One of the investigations was filed by a fictitious secretary in Virginia who complained that she was not being paid the minimum wage. The GAO’s fictitious employer did not refute the receptionist’s claim, but refused to pay the back wages owed anyway. The WHD investigator “accepted the refusal without question and informed the fictitious employee of his right to file a lawsuit.” The fictitious employee then asked why the WHD couldn’t be of more help and was told to contact his Congressman.
Another fictitious claim stated that children were using heavy machinery at a California meat packing facility. But 4 months later, the WHD still had not taken any action. In fact, the complaint was never recorded in the WHD’s database, even though the WDH claims that child labor complaints are its top priority.
It’s bad enough the workers in labor intensive jobs often find themselves preyed upon by unscrupulous employers. Add to that a bad economy in which some employers take desperate (and illegal) cost-cutting measures and top it off with an ineffective government bureaucracy, and you have to wonder: why does the Fair Labor Standards Act exist if our Department of Labor won’t take even the smallest measures to enforce it? What recourse do workers have?
At the end of its undercover study, the GAO was still waiting for the WHD to begin investigating 3 of the fictitious claims, all of which had been delayed by months. During the course of the study, the GAO also exposed many real cases involving hundreds of workers whose employers the WHD never investigated.
According to the report, the “GAO found cases where it took over a year for WHD to respond to a complaint, cases closed based on unverified information provided by the employer, and cases dropped when the employer did not return phone calls.”
“GAO’s overall assessment of the WHD complaint intake, conciliation, and investigation processes found an ineffective system that discourages wage theft complaints,” the report states.