Report: Labor Department fails to enforce wage laws

U.S. Department of Labor officials who are supposed to investigate employer violations of federal wage and hour laws are pursuing fewer investigations, mishandling cases and taking more than a year to act on worker complaints, according to a recent study by the federal Government Accountability Office.

On Tuesday the GAO released the findings (PDF) of an investigation that was requested by House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., analyzing the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division, which enforces minimum wage, overtime and child labor laws in Colorado and the rest of the nation:

The GAO calculated that actions initiated by the Department on wage and hour violations have dropped from approximately 47,000 in 1997 to fewer than 30,000 in 2007. And, the use of fines that punish repeat or egregious offenders declined by nearly 50 percent from 2001 to 2007.

The GAO’s investigation also found that thousands of cases may have been mishandled by the agency over the past decade, which may have resulted in workers receiving reduced or no back pay at all. The investigation cited 15 case studies that exemplified what the GAO claims as the failures to fully investigate and properly address worker complaints. The GAO will continue to investigate these claims.


The GAO also found hundreds of cases where the agency did not assign an investigator for more than a year after the initial complaint. It cited one example where a truck driver who was not paid for overtime had to wait for 17 months to be assigned an investigator. The case against the truck driver’s employer was dropped because the agency could no longer locate the truck driver.

In March the Colorado Independent reported on a growing discrepancy under the Bush Administration in funding between the Labor Department’s Office of Labor Management Standards (OLMS), an agency that conducts audits and criminal investigations against labor unions for financial disclosure violations, and the Wage and Hour Division:

According to [Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao’s] testimony before the House subcommittee, the number of financial compliance audits against labor unions have risen 226 percent since 2001, while the number of convictions increased by 16 percent during the same time frame. The Labor Secretary described these factors as critical to enforce "provisions of federal law that establish standards for union democracy and financial integrity."

Chao has requested $58.3 million for the OLMS, continuing a trend that has increased funding for the office since she began her term at the Labor Department.

Federal budget documents show that funding for the labor union disclosure office has increased from $33 million in 2001 to $47 million in 2007, an increase of 42 percent. At the same time, funding for the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division, which enforces minimum wage, overtime and child labor laws, has increased from $168 million in 2001 to $176 million in 2007, an increase of approximately 5 percent.

To put the data in perspective, since 2001, the dawn of President George W. Bush and Chao’s reign at the Labor Department, investigations of union misconduct have risen by 226 percent, with a 16-percent rise in convictions, while actions against employers who repeatedly violated wage laws dropped by 50 percent during the same time period.

Funding priorities for the Labor Department, an entity with the stated purpose to promote welfare of the job seekers and wage earners, have changed drastically under the Bush administration, and the recent GAO investigation is one of the first hints as to what results such priorities will reap.

Erin Rosa was born in Spain and raised in Colorado Springs. She is a freelance writer currently living in Denver. Rosa's work has been featured in a variety of news outlets including the Huffington Post, Democracy Now!, and the Rocky Mountain Chronicle, an alternative-weekly in Northern Colorado where she worked as a columnist covering the state legislature. Rosa has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for her reporting on lobbying and woman's health issues. She was also tapped with a rare honorable mention award by the Newspaper Guild-CWA's David S. Barr Award in 2008--only the second such honor conferred in its nine-year history--for her investigative series covering the federal government's Supermax prison in the state. Rosa covers the labor community, corrections, immigration and government transparency matters. She can be reached at

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