Partnering to Protect Workers: U.S. Department of Labor Reaches Out to IWJ Worker Centers

Ted Smukler |

IWJ has been leading a nationwide campaign against wage theft, spearheaded by its network of worker centers and religion-labor groups. One of the campaign's major goals is to engage the DOL in collaborations with workers and worker advocates in cities and regions across the country.

If you were to ask any worker in the U.S. what the IRS does, chances are most folks would have a good idea and would also know that the IRS goes after people who fail to honestly report their income. But most workers don't have a clue what the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) or its Wage and Hour Division (WHD) can do to protect their rights and to crack down employers who steal their wages.

When former Congresswoman Hilda Solis was confirmed as the new Secretary of Labor last winter, she said, "There's a new sheriff in town," promising to step up enforcement of wage and hour and health and safety laws, and to transform the DOL culture and procedures so that it could return to its core mission of defending workers. In a statement timed to coincide with IWJ's National Day of Action to Stop Wage Theft, Secretary Solis issued a press release on November 19 underscoring that the agency has hired hundreds of new wage and hour investigators and launched aggressive efforts to combat wage theft.

IWJ has been leading a nationwide campaign against wage theft, spearheaded by its network of worker centers andreligion-labor groups. One of the campaign's major goals is to engage the DOL in collaborations with workers and worker advocates in cities and regions across the country. With almost no assistance from the DOL, worker centers have been fighting to help workers organize and recover stolen wages. Worker center organizers know the employers and industries most guilty of stealing workers' wages in their communities (among the worst industries are construction, restaurants, retail, and meat processing).

After the November 19 Day of Action, DOL leaders asked IWJ to help them reach out to low-wage workers to learn more about their experiences and communicate how the agency can do a better job of helping them. IWJ-affiliated worker centers in MemphisHoustonCincinnati, and Chicago brought workers together in January for focus groups with key federal and regional DOL leaders to exchange ideas.

At the meeting in Chicago, 10 DOL officials, led by Michael Kravitz from the WHD, met for four hours with 10 workers and staff members of Arise Chicago and IWJ (pictured above). Alicia, a restaurant kitchen worker who does not receive tips, reported that she worked 12 hours a day, six days a week, and when she computed her wages she and her co-workers were being paid less than $4.00 per hour, well below the federal and state minimum wage, without any additional overtime pay. But it was hard for her to document this, since she was often paid in cash and never received any pay stubs or paperwork from the restaurant. The DOL representatives responded that she should file a complaint, that they would accept a worker's own documentation of his or her hours and wages.

The DOL asked for and received feedback on public service announcements and other communications strategies to reach out to vulnerable workers, which the agency has called its "We Can Help" campaign. DOL staff members wanted to learn what it needed to do to get workers to call the agency and file complaints. They also acknowledged a need that IWJ and other worker advocates have long raised: the need for more targeted investigations of employers and industries that are known to be flagrant wage thieves, rather than just waiting behind their desks for the phone to ring. The DOL staff members told the workers that they currently estimate only 25 percent of their investigations are pro-active, targeted efforts. While an improvement over the last few years of the Bush Administration, this simply isn't good enough. The DOL staff members said they were interested in partnering with community-based organizations to plan targeted education campaigns. (It can be done. For example, the DOL has done excellent work in New York City targeting the garment industry to recover stolen wages.)

Worker leaders of Arise Chicago were encouraged by the DOL's outreach effort, but remained wary. The main fear is that if workers and their advocates are encouraged to call the DOL and report abuses, what difference will it make if the DOL doesn't follow through? Jorge Garcia, a worker leader at Arise Chicago, said "We asked them, ‘Why should we bother to call?' In the past, the DOL has done nothing with complaints we've given them. We told them we were really encouraged that they were reaching out to us, but that we want to meet with them again in a few months to find out what the results have been and to hold them accountable."

In Memphis, the Workers Interfaith Network (WIN) organized a focus group that met with DOL officials in January. Rev. Rebekah Jordan Gienapp, the group's executive director, thought the meeting was a great first step. "We've tried to meet with the regional staff of the DOL for years, but this is the first time that a real live person ever picked up the phone. Now we've met with the Regional DOL Administrator as well as top staff in Washington, D.C. Let's move on from here and work together to get some justice for workers."