GAO Report Faults Labor Dept.'s Handling of Wage Complaints

By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Something about Julio Castro's weekly pay stub from a D.C. construction firm didn't look right. He was working six or seven days a week, cleaning building sites in Virginia and the District, but the time he worked in excess of 40 hours wasn't being calculated at the overtime rate.

So, after months of complaining to his bosses and getting nowhere, he filed a claim with the U.S. Department of Labor charging that the company had withheld nearly $2,000 in overtime pay. After nearly six months, he hasn't heard anything. He is not alone.

A recently released report by the Government Accountability Office found that the Labor Department systematically ignored, improperly tracked or inadequately investigated dozens of similar cases across the country.

The nine-month investigation by the government's chief audit agency found that the Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division mishandled serious cases nearly 20 percent of the time. The cases included failure by employers to pay employees wages they were owed and failure by the Labor Department to seek legal action against recalcitrant employers.

When the GAO sent in a team of undercover agents posing as frustrated workers, they found that the division mishandled nine of the 10 cases. Some caseworkers discouraged the undercover investigators from filing complaints, instead telling them to hire attorneys. Other claims simply went unanswered. An anonymous tip about child labor law violations was not investigated. And in some cases, serious allegations were never entered into agency databases to help track complaints, according to the report.

"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 35-page report said. "Unfortunately, far too often the result is unscrupulous employers' taking advantage of our country's low-wage workers."

Castro, 65, of Fairfax, said he made about $35,000 a year in his contract job, but he also alleges that his employer cheated him out of thousands more by not paying him the prevailing wage guaranteed workers employed by companies that receive government contracts. "This happened to a lot of people I worked with, but no one would listen," he said.

Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis said that she takes the findings "very seriously" and that the agency would step up enforcement by adding 250 field investigators, including 100 who were funded in the economic stimulus package approved by Congress in February.

"I am dedicated to ensuring compliance with federal labor laws to both strengthen our economy and protect workers in this country," Solis said in a statement, adding that the agency has lost experienced personnel over the past several years.

Congress held hearings on the report last week, and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), who commissioned the report, said he would seek to crack down on companies that violate wage and labor laws.

Locally, advocates and workers' rights attorneys said they have encountered so many problems with the Department of Labor's system that they do not even file claims. Instead, they file complaints with state labor departments, where they usually get better results.

"We don't even bother most of the time because of the things the report found," said Laura Brown, legal director for the D.C. Employment Justice Center, which is working with Castro. "You hardly ever hear back from anyone, and most of the time you can't even figure out who to call to follow up."

Meanwhile, workers such as Castro wait, and it is unclear whether he will be able to collect his overtime pay, because the contract between the federal government and his former employer has ended.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company