Witnesses: Bush Labor Department Cheats Workers

Wednesday, 23 July 2008 14:10 By Mark Gruenberg, PAI | name.

Witnesses: Bush Labor Department Cheats Workers
According to investigators, enforcement of wage-and-hour laws has dropped off significantly during the Bush administration. (Photo: Getty Images)

    Washington - Enforcement of wage-and-hour laws, to ensure workers get at least the minimum wage and the overtime pay they deserve, has dropped drastically under the GOP Bush government, impartial investigators and a low-income workers' advocate told Congress. As a result, low-wage workers are routinely cheated.

    In a contentious July 15 House Education and Labor Committee hearing, probers for the non-partisan Government Accountability Office revealed how the regime's DOL Wage and Hour Division routinely didn't count complaints, sent workers with legitimate gripes to private lawyers, and closed almost half of all complaints with perfunctory phone calls to employers to try to settle cases. The workers lost out, and lost money.

    And Kim Bobo, executive director of the Chicago-based Interfaith Worker Justice -which goes to bat in counseling centers for low-income workers nationwide-added that the wage and hour agency is so understaffed that does fewer probes than the year it was founded, 1941. "And wages are stolen," she added.

    The only witness who disagreed with the evidence was Alexander Passantino, acting administrator of Bush's Labor Department Wage and Hour Division. He went so far as to call the GAO probe "wrong... wrong... wrong... wrong" on every point it raised.

    But even Passantino admitted his agency doesn't handle all the complaints it gets. He also said he repeatedly asked for "more resources"-more money to hire more inspectors-but was turned down. He didn't say by whom, or how much more he sought. No lawmakers asked and he ducked out before reporters could quiz him.

    The Wage and Hour Division's role is important. It is supposed to enforce the 70-year-old Fair Labor Standards Act, the law that established the minimum wage and the right to overtime after 40-hour weeks. But low-wage workers are often victims of the lack of enforcement, GAO probers Anne Marie Lasowski and Greg Kutz testified.

    And there's another way that workers are cheated besides missed calls or referrals to lawyers whom they can't afford, the GAO probers said. The agency is so understaffed with attorneys to follow up cases that many times the employer wins, and the worker gets nothing, because the statute of limitations runs out before DOL can file a complaint.

    "In one case," a garment factory in Santa Fe Springs, Calif., "a $60,000 violation involving 24 workers was dropped because there weren't enough attorneys available to handle it," Kutz said. Indeed, in a representative sample of 15 cases he probed deeply, half were dismissed because the time for filing ran out before DOL assigned a lawyer to the workers.

    Lasowski also said it was difficult to tell how well the Bush department was protecting the workers, because DOL kept changing measurements of its own performance in the role of workers' guardian. In the 10 years covered by GAO's report, 1997-2007, "90% of the division's 131 performance measures" on how it handled the minimum wage and overtime cases "changed every two years," she said.

    "But there has been a decline in enforcement actions from 1997 to the present," she added. There's also been a drop in wage and hour inspectors over that time, from 942 to 732.

    That drop, detailed in her GAO report, showed the Wage and Hour Division handled 47,000 cases in 1997 and 30,000 last year. Bobo testified the division handled 48,000 cases in 1941. It probed one of every eight worksites then, she said. The agency also doesn't use any data, either from its own records or from outside groups-such as unions and Bobo's group-to target repeat violators, the GAO report added.

    And that's despite the fact that repeat violators are known, by industry, from both outside reports and from a study DOL commissioned a decade ago, Lasowski noted. Workers routinely are cheated of the minimum wage, overtime, or both, in poultry processing, the garment trades, agriculture, hotels and restaurants and health care.

    All those industries have high proportions of low-wage workers who are hurt even harder than others when their employers cheat, Bobo told the lawmakers. And they also have high proportions of immigrant workers. Both groups may be unable to get help, she added.

    The low-wage workers can't afford the private lawyers that Bush's DOL often refers them to. The immigrants are scared of deportation, even if they're here legally. The Fair Labor Standards Act covers workers in the U.S. regardless of their status. Bobo recommended, among other things, that it's "time to punish those who steal workers' wages in meaningful ways," with hefty fines and jail terms.

    Committee Democrats were not happy with what they heard. "Simply put, this is theft. This is illegal," said chairman George Miller (D-Calif.). "This is an agency in denial," added Rep. Phil Hare (D-Ill.) afterwards. Asked if, in his career as a shop steward for UNITE in a Rockford, Ill., textile plant, he got calls about wage and hour violations, he replied: "A lot, every month."

Last modified on Wednesday, 23 July 2008 17:30