By Mike Hall
In a 180-degreee turn from a Labor Department under the Bush administration that tried to gut overtime rules for millions of workers, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis has unveiled a new campaign to inform workers about their pay rights and to put a stop to wage theft.
In Chicago last week before a group of union, community and faith activists, Solis said:
I have a message for those employers who break this nation’s labor laws and prey on vulnerable workers: It ends today. I’m here to tell you that your president, your secretary of labor and this department will not allow anyone to be denied his or her rightful pay—especially when so many in our nation are working long, hard and often dangerous hours.
The Labor Department’s “We Can Help” multi-lingual campaign is aimed at low-wage and vulnerable workers with a special focus on reaching employees in such industries as construction, janitorial work, hotel/motel services, food services and home health care. It also will address such topics as rights in the workplace and how to file a complaint with the Wage and Hour Division to recover wages owed.
Last year, an investigation by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found the department’s Wage and Hour office, under former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, had failed miserably in enforcing minimum wage and overtime laws. The division’s failure to act, says the report,
left thousands of actual victims of wage theft who sought federal government assistance with nowhere to turn.
A 2008 GAO report found that under the Bush administration, the number of wage and hour inspectors dropped from 942 to 732. At the same time, the number of investigations into employers’ refusal to pay minimum wage, overtime—or even any wages at all—has dropped from 47,000 in 1997 to 30,000 in 2008.
Since taking office, Solis has added 250 new inspectors to the wage and hour division, bringing the total to 949.
Solis said the We Can Help effort will work with unions, faith groups and community groups to get the information into work places and neighborhoods. Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ) also offers a Wage Theft Online Resource Center, which includes a list of resources and information about the wage theft crisis. Says Solis:
If someone is stealing your wages, you can and should call the Department of Labor….We can help, and we will help. If you work in this country, you are protected by our laws. And you can count on the U.S. Department of Labor to see to it that those protections work for you.
There are also efforts on the state and local level to put halt to wage theft. Earlier this year, the Miami- Dade County Commission approved a country-wide wage theft ordinance. In New York State, a bill to toughen penalties for employers who steal workers wages is before the legislature.
Enforcement of workplace laws is so inadequate, and penalties are so low, that corrupt businesses often come out ahead. Unscrupulous employers simply factor the risk of getting caught breaking the law into their cost of doing business. Responsible business owners are put at a competitive disadvantage by rival companies that cut costs by cheating their employees.