Even as the Obama administration beefs up the Department of Labor enforcement staff, it may seek to augment the work of government investigators with input from unions and community organizations.
Following an appearance before the House Education and Labor Committee earlier this year, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis endorsed the notion of enlisting outside groups to blow the whistle on companies that fail to pay employees what they’re owed or to provide a safe work environment.
M. Patricia Smith, the new Labor Department chief legal officer, established a community policing program in 2009 when she was commissioner of labor in New York.
The proposed Labor Department budget for fiscal 2011 includes a 4 percent boost for worker protection.
The Wage and Hour Division will receive a $20 million increase from the previous fiscal year to $244 million and hire 90 new investigators.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration budget of $573 million represents a $14 million increase from 2010. OSHA will hire 25 inspectors and move 35 staff to enforcement from compliance assistance jobs.
Combined with the increased hiring during President Barack Obama’s first year, the Labor Department is restoring its enforcement workforce to 2001 levels.
That’s still not enough, said Solis, who wants to add more eyes and ears to detect negligent employers.
“We don’t have enough on-staff investigators to cover every single item that comes up,” she said. “Our resources are very limited. We’ve lost a lot of valuable time and staffing in the last decade.”
Smith tapped “ordinary people with a formal and systematic role in the fight against wage theft” through New York Wage Watch, according to a January 26, 2009, statement from the New York state Department of Labor.
Smith’s confirmation barely overcame a Republican filibuster in early February, 60-37, amid GOP charges that she mischaracterized the program as an educational rather than enforcement initiative in Senate testimony.
In a separate effort, advocacy network Interfaith Worker Justice has launched a national drive to curb wage theft.
Although unions have been blowing the whistle on pay violations for years, the idea of involving community organizations in monitoring companies is new, according to Gerald Maatman Jr., a partner at Seyfarth Shaw in Chicago.
A recent report by the firm indicates more wage-and-hour litigation than any other kind of workplace class action in 2009. The top 10 settlements totaled $363.6 million, up sharply from $252.7 million in 2008.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys are eager to launch wage-and-hour suits because they’re much easier and less costly to pursue than other discrimination categories, according to Maatman. Lawyers for workers may now get more help from average citizens.
“They have someone out there investigating for them,” Maatman said. “The end result is more cases and more litigation. It’s something that keeps HR managers and compliance officers up at night.”
The first line of defense is a sound internal system for responding to employee complaints, which may keep disgruntled workers out of a lawyer’s office.
“Companies that exhibit workplace due process tend to have fewer claims across the board,” Maatman said.