When Workers’ Rights Go Unenforced
“The Law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich, as well as the poor, to sleep under the bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal.”
Given the dramatic changes in the political landscape, there’s a joke going around that the Republicans are contemplating changing their party symbol from an elephant to a snowball in Hell. Funny.
Even if the perception is more or less true—even if the Democrats are on the verge of establishing a Thousand Year Reich—no one should expect to see the benefits trickle down to the folks who most need them. With or without the Democrats, people working in low-wage jobs will likely continue to be victimized.
Not to pass judgment prematurely on the abilities of Labor Secretary Hilda Solis or the commitment of the Obama administration, but America’s underclass is so far out of kilter, so in need of recalibration, it will take a mammoth effort simply to determine the scope of the problem.
Consider the recent findings by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
In a report issued on March 25, the GAO found that the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division (W&HD), the agency charged with enforcing overtime and minimum wage provisions, had egregiously mishandled several cases involving complaints from low-wage workers. The report was the result of a “sting” operation conducted by undercover federal agents posing as workers.
The results were close to unbelievable. It’s one thing for a government bureaucracy to be inefficient and boorish; we’ve all pretty much come to accept that. But it’s quite another when a help-the-underdog agency performs at near criminal levels of ineptitude. According to a report published in the New York Times, the extent of the W&HD’s dereliction was staggering.
One example: an agent posing as a dishwasher complained that he hadn’t been paid the overtime wages due him for almost five months. The W&HD not only didn’t return his call for several months, but when it did contact him, an agency official told him it would be another 8 to 10 months before they could get around to investigating the claim.
A minimum wage employee calls the Labor Department agency specifically dedicated to representing his interests, and the agency blows him off. It takes months to get back to the guy, and when they do get back, they tell him they won’t be able to make the initial telephone inquiry for another 8 to 10 months. Unbelievable.
Another example: As part of the sting, a call was made to the W&HD reporting that under-age children in a northern California meat-packing plant were working during school hours, and being assigned to dangerous equipment. That tip should have raised a red flag. But what did the agency do? Nothing. They never responded, and the matter was never investigated. For all the W&HD knows, there’s a whole crew of 11-year olds out there, making sausages.
During the GAO’s investigation it was discovered that claims of hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid overtime (where employees were forced to work “off the clock”) had never even been delved into. They had been totally ignored.
According to the GAO, the W&HD regularly abandoned cases when the employer didn’t return its preliminary phone call, and in many instances the government official glibly advised the employee to “file a lawsuit” instead of relying on the agency for help. That has to win the Marie Antoinette Award for callousness: telling a minimum wage worker who’s been gamed by his employer to go hire a lawyer.
It gets better.
During the nine-month sting operation, it was revealed that five of the ten “scripted” complaints were not even logged into the W&HD’s official records; and in two other cases, the agency reported that the employees in question had been paid their back wages when, in fact, they had not. So not only did the agency not respond, they cooked the books.
The GAO found numerous instances of field agents being intimidated by employers, bending over backwards to accommodate management, and taking the employer’s side against the employee, including allowing them to make restitution at pennies on the dollar. The report was a nightmare.
Secretary Solis has vowed to bolster the woefully undermanned agency by hiring an additional 250 investigators. That’s a start. But the lesson here is that workers can’t rely on government watchdogs; there are simply too many employees, too few dogs, and too many devious employers looking to swindle vulnerable workers.
With the government ruled out, and employees not having the necessary skills or muscle to do it themselves, that leaves only organized labor. If anybody ever needed a union to represent them, it’s those vulnerable, low-wage workers who inhabit the economy’s nether region.
Of course, now we know why the Chamber of Commerce fought so hard and spent so much money making sure the EFCA was shot down. Had universal card check become law, it might have been a whole new ballgame.
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright (“Americana,” “Larva Boy”) and writer, was a former labor union rep. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org