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DOL’s Trojan horse: ‘We’re from the DOL and We Can Help’

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in Compensation and Benefits,Employment Law,Human Resources

by Dean A. LeDoux, Esq.

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) is stepping up efforts to encourage and support certain types of wage-loss claims by low-income workers. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis announced this spring that the department was rolling out its “We Can Help” campaign to address this issue.

If you employ relatively low-wage workers, you need to be aware of this program.

The program will be administered by the DOL’s Wage and Hour Division. It focuses on two specific types of wage-loss claims:

  1. Failure to pay employees the federally mandated minimum wage rate (currently $7.25 per hour)
  2. Failure to pay federally mandated overtime wages (for applicable employees working more than 40 hours per week).

More education, more claims

The stated mission of the “We Can Help” campaign, according to a DOL statement announcing the program, is “to provide workers with information about their rights in the workplace and to educate them on how to seek the assistance of the Wage and Hour Division when they believe that they have been the subject of a violation.”

The DOL has added information to its web site for the program (www.dol.gov/wecanhelp), including frequently asked questions and information on how employees can file formal complaints to address possible wage-loss claims against their employers.

The program is limited to investigating and assisting in the filing of claims under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). It will have a special emphasis on trying to reach workers in particular fields, including the food service, janitorial, hotel and motel, home health care and construction industries. Those industries tend to employ many lower-paid workers.

The program also appears to reach out specifically to immigrants and other non-English-speaking employees. The public information campaign will feature outreach in several languages.

What it means for employers

It remains to be seen whether this initiative by the DOL will have the intended effects on employees. Nevertheless, employers should certainly be aware of the initiative and the likelihood that their workers will be more attuned to and aware of potential wage-loss claims under the FLSA.

At a minimum, this high-profile campaign—and media attention being paid to it—will probably lead to increased awareness among workers of possible wage claims.

It is also reasonable to assume that employees may now be even more likely to consult with employment law attorneys to investigate whether they may have other possible employment-based claims against their employers—outside of FLSA claims.

It’s just another reason why you should take great care to review and keep accurate records regarding hours worked and rates of pay for all employees. Other steps you can take:

  • Set clear policies about overtime work. Make sure supervisors follow those policies.
  • Pay special attention to compensation for work performed before or after employees’ official work shifts. In many cases, you must pay for the time employees spend putting on and taking off uniforms and protective gear and otherwise preparing to work. The DOL is focusing on this issue.
  • Be proactive in assessing whether these or other compliance issues exist. Address them before employees complain.

Be aware that you have to consider additional state wage-and-hour laws and requirements. When state and federal laws differ, you must apply the law that provides the greatest benefit to employees.

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Author: Dean A. LeDoux is a Gray Plant Mooty principal whose employment law and labor practice involves litigation and providing advice.

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