As President Obama calls on all of us to do more to restore opportunity and to ensure that work pays, the Labor Department is undertaking a strategic investment in our budget request for fiscal year 2015 that will enable us to do even more of what we know is already working for Americans: ensuring workers are paid what they’re owed, and that businesses that play by the rules are given the opportunity to compete on a fair and level playing field.
For the next fiscal year, the Wage and Hour Division has requested an additional 300 investigators to help us enforce minimum wage, overtime, child labor and other wage protection laws. These additional “boots on the ground” also will strengthen our outreach to workers and compliance assistance to employers.
The impact of these additional investigators will be significant. The added resources will allow us to better deliver consistent, high-quality customer service in our complaint program. It will also further amplify the success of our directed enforcement program. Data-driven, evidence-based directed investigations focus on priority industries in which violation rates are high, but in which vulnerable workers – reluctant to approach any federal agency for any reason – are unlikely to file complaints when their workplace rights have been violated. Often, if it were not for the Wage and Hour Division, these workers would have no voice.
This administration’s early investment in the Wage and Hour Division is working, gaining results for workers every day. President Obama made a strategic investment in the division by bringing aboard 300 new investigators, after years in which resources and a commitment to enforcing our nation’s wage and hour laws was lacking. That investment paid off.
Since the beginning of 2009, our investigations have resulted in more than $1.06 billion in back wages for more than 1.2 million workers in over 145,800 cases nationwide. In the most recent fiscal year, agency investigations resulted in nearly $250 million in back wages and helped 269,000 workers across the country. In low-wage industries – including the restaurant industry, health care, and agriculture, we found $83 million in back wages for 108,000 workers. That’s a 44 percent increase in total back wages recovered and more than a 40 percent increase in the number of low-wage workers assisted compared to 2008.
But it’s more than just numbers. It is money that people have earned, most of them low-wage and vulnerable workers. It’s real money that has enabled them to put food on the table, cover the rent, provide care of their children, keep the lights on and pay for other expenses.
Not too long ago, one worker and his wife faced increasing bills after he was denied his proper wages. They were forced to pawn their wedding rings to cover the payments. When they turned to us for help, our investigation found evidence that he was owed back wages. The couple used the back wages he received to buy back their wedding rings. That’s an impact we can’t begin to put a price on, but these results illustrate the real-world, life-changing effects and benefits of our work.
But the truth is that we need more resources to reach more workers and more workplaces. Laws enforced by the agency cover more than 135 million workers in more than 7 million establishments nationwide – a lot of ground to cover – and President Obama’s FY 2015 budget will help us get more of that done. New staff, along with our policy to continually invest our resources, will net concrete results for the American worker. It will ensure businesses that play by the rules aren’t at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to commerce. It will mean more workers will receive what they’ve rightfully earned, and it will give them a stronger chance to get by, to take care of themselves and provide for their families.
Laura Fortman is the principal deputy administrator for the Wage and Hour Division.