If you ask Gundemaro Rodas how important the Fair Labor Standards Act‘s protections are in today’s workplace, his answer will be loud and clear. Rodas just received more than $10,000 in back wages after a Wage and Hour Division investigation disclosed that his New Jersey gas station employer failed to pay him his hard-earned overtime. He used the wages to pay rent, car insurance and to repay money he borrowed to cover medical bills for an injury that had put him out of work.
As the landscape of the fissured workplace in the 21st century continues to change, the well-being of workers in this country will continue to depend upon the bedrock principles set forth in the Fair Labor Standards Act and the other labor laws enforced by the Wage and Hour Division.
The good thing is that the results of our combined efforts to protect workers during the 2015 fiscal year show that strategic enforcement is working. They also make it clear that the laws we enforce remain a critical component in protecting both workers, who deserve fair pay, and employers, who deserve a level playing field.
But our findings present us with a sort of paradox: While we’re proud to have put more than $246 million in back wages into the hands of the 240,000 workers who rightfully earned them last year, we nonetheless found violations in about 80 percent of our investigations. That only underscores the crucial need for our investigators to be out in the fields, warehouses, restaurants and other areas of our economy where workers are likely to experience wage violations.
I see it firsthand when I travel the country talking to workers – like the retail workers I met in North Carolina who were spirited away by their employer during an investigation in an attempt to prevent our investigators from finding out they were not even being paid the minimum wage; or the hundreds of construction workers in Arizona and Utah who worked as employees one day and returned to work the next to be told that they were now required to become “LLCs,” and were therefore stripped of the protections and safety nets provided only to employees. That’s why we focus our efforts on low-wage industries, and as a result, have collected more than $74 million in back wages for more than 102,000 workers in industries like janitorial services, security, landscaping and hospitality in 2015.
We continue to focus our resources where data tells us violations are the most prevalent, but where workers are least likely to speak up. We are looking in the right places: Last year we found violations in 79 percent of our agency-initiated investigations, an increase of 21 percent over 2009.
Also, we are continuing our strong enforcement of the protections for both U.S. and guest workers through our work in the H-visa programs. Enforcement statistics from these programs are now available online for the first time, and demonstrate the impact of our efforts within the industries where these visa holders typically work.
Additionally, we are dedicated to making sure that workers and employers alike know the rules, and their rights. Since 2009, we have conducted more than 15,000 outreach events to educate a wide variety of stakeholders – workers, employers, advocates, consulates, employer associations. In 2015 alone we conducted more than 2,600 events. We’re out there in the community building relationships and networks to educate all parties and bolster compliance. Our goal is to provide the tools employers need to comply prospectively.
As we look forward to the new year, and to helping to shape the changing landscape of the 21st-century workplace, the Wage and Hour Division will continue to work to ensure that – no matter what work looks like – employers can count on a level playing field, and workers can count on a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.
Dr. David Weil is administrator of the department’s Wage and Hour Division.