The U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD) has been criticized by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) for mishandling many overtime and minimum-wage complaints and delaying investigating hundreds of cases for a year or more, according to a GAO report issued on July 15th, 2008.
The GAO, which will release its report at a hearing of the House Education and Labor Committee, said that from fiscal years 1997 to 2007, the number of WHD’s enforcement actions decreased 37 percent, from 46,758 in 1997 to just 29,584 in 2007.
Representative George Miller, Democrat of California and chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, said in his prepared remarks for the hearing, “Although the Department of Labor currently has the necessary tools to fight wage theft, the G.AO investigation suggests that the problem of wage theft is only getting worse because of weaker enforcement.”
The WHD defended its performance, saying that it decided to enforce fewer, but more time-consuming and comprehensive claims. In addition, it said that the decrease also resulted from more careful screening of complaints to eliminate those that may not be violations. WHD also stated that part of the decrease is attributable to a 20% reduction in investigative staff.
The GAO also criticized the WHD for focusing on too narrow a range of industries. “WHD focused on the same industries from 1997 to 2007. The agency primarily targeted four industry groups: agriculture, accommodation and food services, manufacturing, and health care and social services.” The WHD didn’t focus on the low-wage industries where, one report said, it would be most likely to find violations. The GAO concludes, “WHD may not be addressing the needs of workers most vulnerable to FLSA violations.” But the WHD said it had also broadened its efforts to include other low-wage businesses, including day care, restaurants, construction and hotels.
In a fact sheet, the Labor Department noted that the back wages collected by the WHD “more than doubled to $220,613,703 in 2007 from $96,719,108 in 1997.” The DOL said that “341,624 employees received back wages in 2007, up from 189,244 10 years earlier.” It also added “The Wage and Hour Division is delivering pay for workers, not a payday for trial lawyers.”