Commentary

Congress, North Carolina should put more money into fighting wage theft

Photo: NC State AFL-CIO

Photo: NC State AFL-CIO

Too many workers in North Carolina are suffering from wage theft—when employers refuse to pay their employees all the money they have earned and are owed.

A recent op-ed in the Washington Post (via the N&O) rightfully called on Congress to give the US Department of Labor (USDOL) the funding it needs to better fight this problem. Wage theft comes in many forms: refusing to pay the required or agreed upon wage, refusing to pay one and a half the regular rate for overtime hours, misclassifying workers as exempt from overtime, treating workers as independent contractors when they are really employees, requiring tipped employees to participate in a tip pool with non-tipped workers, making unlawful deduction from pay and not compensating workers for all the time they are working.

“Enforcement should be a bipartisan issue. If politicians truly care about inequality and fairness, reducing reliance on public assistance, making sure that the system isn’t ‘rigged’ against the little guy, and, for that matter, ‘law and order,’ they should start by enforcing the laws already on the books – and by making sure hard-working Americans get every cent to which they are entitled.”

But, that isn’t the case. “In each of the past three years, the Obama administration has requested funding for more investigators; each time, Congress has denied the request.”

The good news is that USDOL has still managed to play an active role in enforcing wage and hour laws. Under the leadership of David Weil, the USDOL Wage and Hour Division has used its limited resources strategically to help as many low-wage workers as possible. Last year, the Wage and Hour Division found over $246 million in back wages owed to 240,000 workers. And they managed to do that with fewer than 1,000 investigators, which, as the authors point out, is “fewer than there were when Jimmy Carter was president, even though the U.S. workforce has grown more than 50 percent since.” But Weil wants to do more; his department is requesting $277 million this year, which would, among other things, allow them to hire 300 more investigators.

Unfortunately, the North Carolina Department of Labor (NCDOL), has played a much less active role enforcing wage and hour laws. North Carolina workers whose employer’s annual dollar volume is under $500,000 have to ask the NCDOL Wage and Hour Bureau, rather than USDOL, for help if they have problems with their pay. But NCDOL has made it clear that enforcement and helping workers recover wages is not their priority. The N&O special series “The Reluctant Regulator” last fall revealed that NCDOL rarely pushes employers to pay wages they owe if the employer does not just agree to pay after the initial request, they almost never take delinquent employers to court, and  investigators are encouraged to close cases rapidly to meet their monthly quota even when it means leaving workers in the lurch. North Carolina workers need a labor department that focuses on enforcement and cracking down on wage theft, rather than “customer service and efficiency.”

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