The Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, under which the Fair Labor Standards Act came into existence in 1938 as part of a nationwide effort to protect working class citizens from corporate exploitation and abuse, may be on the mend after an long era of being little more than a bureaucratic entity.
In March, Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis announced her intentions to revamp and empower the Wage and Hour Division, saying that she would increase the Division’s staff size by a third in an effort to “refocus the agency on [its] enforcement responsibilities.” The addition of new field investigators, she said, “will reinvigorate the work of this important agency, which has suffered a loss of experienced personnel over the last several years.”
Last year, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the Wage and Hour Division’s enforcement of FLSA laws dropped to record lows under the Bush Administration. Most abused by employers were FLSA regulations guaranteeing minimum wage and overtime compensation. Abuse of the laws grew while enforcement of the laws shrank, creating what wage theft activist Kim Bobo called a “national crisis at this moment in our nation” to the tune of $19 billion per year in unpaid overtime alone.
Bobo, who is the founder and executive director of the Interfaith Worker Justice program, supported the GAO investigators in their findings. “The wage and hour division is so understaffed,” Bobo said, “that it is actually now doing fewer investigations of wage and hour complaints than it did in 1941, the year it was founded. Wages are simply being stolen.”
The appointment of Hilda Solis as Secretary of Labor is as symbolic as it is significant, and promises to bring about change for workers who have endured workplace abuse for years. The daughter of immigrants from Nicaragua and Mexico, Solis is both personally and professionally familiar with the plight of the working class, and particularly the struggles of the working class immigrant.
“The U.S. Department of Labor is the voice for working families, and I am dedicated to ensuring compliance with federal labor laws to both strengthen our economy and protect workers in this country,” Solis said.