GAO: Department of Labor Failing to Protect Workers

March 27, 2009
Federal agents posing as workers have completed an undercover investigation of the Department of Labor (DOL) that has resulted in claims that the department frequently mishandles serious worker complaints, placing many workers at risk. The outcome of the investigation is detailed in a new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that found DOL mishandled nine out of the 10 cases included in the undercover operation.

The report, which is scheduled to be released on March 25, found that the agency's Wage and Hour Division (WHD) not only failed to properly investigate wage and hour complaints, but also ignored a complaint that underage children were working at a California meatpacking plant during school hours, a violation of a number of labor laws.

GAO filed 10 common complaints with WHD district offices across the country. The undercover tests revealed "sluggish response times, a poor complaint intake process and failed conciliation attempts, among other problems," said GAO in its report. "In one case, a WHD investigator lied about investigative work performed and did not investigate GAO's fictitious complaint. At the end of the undercover tests, GAO was still waiting for WHD to begin investigating three cases – a delay of nearly 5, 4 and 2 months, respectively. "

Upon learning of the findings of the investigation, Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis commented, "I take the issues raised by the Government Accountability Office investigation regarding past Wage and Hour Division enforcement very seriously."

"This investigation clearly shows that Labor has left thousands of actual victims of wage theft who sought federal government assistance with nowhere to turn," the report said. "Unfortunately, far too often the result is unscrupulous employers' taking advantage of our country's low-wage workers."

Solis said that as secretary of labor, she is committed "to ensuring that every worker is paid at least the minimum wage, that those who work overtime are properly compensated, that child labor laws are strictly enforced and that every worker is provided a safe and healthful environment."

According to Solis, DOL's Wage and Hour Division already has begun the process of adding 150 new investigators to its field offices to refocus the agency on these enforcement responsibilities. In addition, under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the agency will hire 100 investigators to ensure that contractors on stimulus projects are in compliance with the applicable laws.

"The addition of these 250 new field investigators, a staff increase of more than a third, will reinvigorate the work of this important agency, which has suffered a loss of experienced personnel over the last several years," said Solis.

In addition to the fictitious cases, GAO identified 20 cases affecting at least 1,160 real employees whose employers were inadequately investigated. GAO found cases where it took WHD over a year to respond to a complaint, cases closed based on unverified information provided by the employer and cases dropped because an employer did not return phone calls.

In testimony before the House of Representatives' Committee on Education and Labor, Gregory D. Kutz, managing director of Forensic Audits and Special Investigations, and Jonathan T. Meyer, assistant director of Forensic Audits and Special Investigations, for GAO, said, "This investigation clearly shows that the Department of Labor has left thousands of actual victims of wage theft who sought federal government assistance with nowhere to turn. Our work has shown that when WHD adequately investigates and follows through on cases, they are often successful. However, far too often, many of America's most vulnerable workers find themselves dealing with an agency concerned about resource limitations, with ineffective processes and without certain tools necessary to perform timely and effective investigations of wage theft complaints.

Unfortunately, far too often, the result is unscrupulous employers taking edvantage of our country's low-wage workers."

About the Author

Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the former content director of EHS Today, and is currently the EHSQ content & community lead at Intelex Technologies Inc. She has written about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990.

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