Employers Beware: DOL Investigation and Enforcement Increasing by 33 Percent

Employers beware! This is the message emanating loud and clear from the Obama Administration's Department of Labor. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis recently announced that the Department is dramatically increasing its enforcement of federal employment laws with an additional 250 new wage and hour investigators. This influx of new investigators boosts the departmental investigative staff by a full one third.

With this announcement, Secretary Solis promised, "America's workers should rest assured that protecting worker rights is a top priority at the Department of Labor." Her press release warned, "[t]here is no excuse for employers who disregard federal labor standards--especially those that are designed to protect the most vulnerable in the workplace."

Broad Investigative Powers

The Department's Wage and Hour Division investigates allegations that employers failed to pay minimum wage or overtime, as well as alleged misclassification of employees as exempt or independent contractors.1 DOL investigations can be triggered by complaints from employees, unions, or competitors, and routine audits also can be performed, often focusing on a particular industry or type of employer.

The Department has broad investigative powers, including the power to subpoena employment records. Assuming wage and hour violations are discovered, the Department will seek a settlement. If an out-of-court agreement is not reached, the Department can sue to enjoin an employer's violation of the law as well as to compel the payment of back pay to all employees. The Department also has the power to seek reinstatement with back pay of any individual employee who was discharged for attempting to enforce the law.

Should the Department bring suit and prevail, it will recover liquidated damages equal to the unpaid wages the employer owes, unless the employer can prove that it acted in good faith with a reasonable belief that its pay practices complied with the law. Interest and attorney's fees are likely to be awarded as well, even if liquidated damages are not.

Significant Settlements

The threat of such enforcement actions can result in employers agreeing to settlements that provide significant recoveries. For instance, in July 2009, the Department announced a settlement of almost $750,000 with a convenience store chain in nine states accused of failing to properly include performance-related bonuses in the regular rate used to calculate overtime pay.

The Department also is planning a "public awareness campaign" to inform workers of their "rights," which presumably also will assist the Department in finding errant employers to investigate and prosecute.

Wake-Up Call

The federal government's increased manpower and desire to enforce federal labor standards should be a wake up call to United States employers to ensure that their procedures and practices comply with federal labor laws.

Audits conducted by or through counsel can catch technical problems with pay practices, recordkeeping, and employee classification that can be corrected to reduce exposure. Training of managers in employment laws such as when overtime is required can avoid violations caused by managers' ignorance of legal obligations.

These proactive steps can save employers the expense and embarrassment of reacting to a government investigation or a costly class action.

This entry was written by Alison Hightower.

1 The Wage and Hour Division also governs the hours and conditions for employment of children under 16 years old and it enforces the labor standards provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) that apply to aliens authorized to work in the U.S. under certain nonimmigrant visa programs.

Information contained in this publication is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or opinion, nor is it a substitute for the professional judgment of an attorney.