Department of Labor:

Wage and Hour Division's Complaint Intake and Investigative Processes Leave Low Wage Workers Vulnerable To Wage Theft

GAO-09-458T: Published: Mar 25, 2009. Publicly Released: Mar 25, 2009.

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The mission of the Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division (WHD) includes enforcing provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which is designed to ensure that millions of workers are paid the federal minimum wage and overtime. Conducting investigations based on worker complaints is WHD's priority. According to WHD, investigations range from comprehensive investigations to conciliations, which consist primarily of phone calls to a complainant's employer. In July 2008, GAO testified on 15 case studies where WHD failed to investigate complaints. This testimony highlights the findings of a follow-up investigation performed at the Committee's request. Specifically, GAO was asked to (1) test WHD's complaint intake process in an undercover capacity, (2) provide additional case study examples of inadequate WHD responses to complaints, and (3) assess the effectiveness of WHD's complaint intake process, conciliations, and other investigative tools. To test WHD's complaint intake process, GAO posed as complainants and employers in 10 different scenarios. To provide case study examples and assess effectiveness of investigations, GAO used data mining and statistical sampling of closed case data for fiscal year 2007. GAO plans to issue a follow-up report with recommendations concerning resource needs and the recording of complaints. GAO also confirmed key findings with WHD officials.

GAO found that WHD frequently responded inadequately to complaints, leaving low wage workers vulnerable to wage theft. Posing as fictitious complainants, GAO filed 10 common complaints with WHD district offices across the country. The undercover tests revealed sluggish response times, a poor complaint intake process, and failed conciliation attempts, among other problems. In one case, a WHD investigator lied about investigative work performed and did not investigate GAO's fictitious complaint. At the end of the undercover tests, GAO was still waiting for WHD to begin investigating three cases--a delay of nearly 5, 4, and 2 months, respectively. Similar to the 10 fictitious scenarios, GAO identified 20 cases affecting at least 1,160 real employees whose employers were inadequately investigated. For example, GAO found cases where it took over a year for WHD to respond to a complaint, cases closed based on unverified information provided by the employer, and cases dropped when the employer did not return phone calls. GAO's overall assessment of the WHD complaint intake, conciliation, and investigation processes found an ineffective system that discourages wage theft complaints. With respect to conciliations, GAO found that WHD does not fully investigate these types of complaints or compel employers to pay. In addition, a WHD policy instructed many offices not to record unsuccessful conciliations in its database, making WHD appear better at resolving conciliations than it actually is. WHD's investigations were frequently delayed by months or years, but once complaints were recorded in WHD's database and assigned as a case to an investigator, they were often adequately investigated.

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