How Strategic Enforcement Fuels Compliance with Labor Laws

gas station Photo courtesy of Diane Cordell, from the Flickr Creative Commons (license CC BY-ND 2.0)

When we fill up our tanks, we’re aware of the price we’re paying for gas. But for those of us who live in New Jersey or Oregon, or have ever passed through a station that employs attendants to pump gas, did you stop to think about the wages paid to that attendant? At the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, that’s what I think about. And we’re working to ensure that employers in this industry hit the gas on efforts to pay properly at the pump.

New Jersey is one of the two states (along with Oregon) where motorists are prohibited from pumping their own gas. Gas stations in New Jersey employ thousands of attendants − typically vulnerable, low-wage workers who are, for a variety of reasons, at risk for working under conditions where they are not paid all of the wages legally due them.

In 2010, my Wage and Hour Division office launched a still-ongoing enforcement initiative focused on New Jersey gas stations, where we have historically found consistent and widespread violations of federal minimum wage and overtime laws.

Since 2010, we’ve completed over 300 investigations in this industry, and returned over $5.5 million in back wages and damages to more than 1100 workers. As we announced our results over these past five years, they have garnered a great deal of media attention.

But this initiative is also a great example of how “strategic enforcement” succeeds. We don’t measure success only by the amount of back wages we have collected. Rather, success means improving compliance levels, so that when we enter workplaces in the days, months and years ahead, we find fewer and fewer violations. Success means that workers receive a fair day's pay for a fair day's work, and that businesses can compete fairly.

Getting there requires us to use our limited resources strategically, including leveraging the power of industries to monitor themselves. With responsibility for labor laws covering more than 7.3 million establishments and 135 million workers, we simply can’t be everywhere at once. We take a multipronged approach to maximizing the effectiveness of our work – vigorous enforcement, education, media, and engaging industry stakeholders to protect their workers and to level the playing field for employers.

As part of our initiative, my office conducted outreach not only to employer and employee associations, but also to community organizations, government agencies and other stakeholders to engage them in dialogue, solicit their input on enforcement strategies and encourage them to participate in promoting compliance.

An interesting trend recently emerged: In fiscal year 2014, the Wage and Hour Division found almost $300,000 in back wages and damages for nearly 100 workers: the lowest findings since 2010 when the initiative began. And that’s just one piece of evidence that our enforcement efforts have impacted the industry. I saw that some gas stations hired more employees to avoid overtime violations; purchased time clocks to keep track of hours worked; and reached out to the division for guidance in providing training for managers on overtime and minimum wage laws. We continue to monitor the industry for compliance and hope this trend continues.

Our strategic enforcement has not only helped exploited workers directly, but has also caused a change in the industry: it is now taking steps to self-monitor, and employers are reaching out proactively to ask for guidance. Working together, we can clearly achieve a broader impact than could ever be accomplished by conducting one investigation at a time. Strategic enforcement allows us to get the most mileage out of every drop of fuel.

Sandy Steiner is a community outreach and resource planning specialist who also previously served as an investigator within the Northern New Jersey District Office of the department’s Wage and Hour Division.

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