Labor Department inundated with worker complaints

Agency working with lawyer group to get employees justice

March 13, 2011|By Eileen Ambrose, The Baltimore Sun

Not me, of course, but lots of workers complain about their bosses.

In fact, tens of thousands of employees each year go so far as to take their concerns to the Department of Labor — more grievances than the agency can handle.

Now there's backup help. The Labor Department has established a first-of-its-kind program with the American Bar Association. The agency would put workers whose complaints it won't take up in touch with private employment lawyers. The Bridge to Justice program focuses on potential violations of overtime, minimum wage and family medical leave laws.

Catherine Ruckelshaus, legal co-director of the National Employment Law Project that advocates for low-wage workers, says her group has long sought such a program, pointing to a "dearth of enforcement" of basic wage and hour laws.

Workers filed more than 40,000 complaints nationally in the last fiscal year with the Labor Department's wage and hour division. Even after adding a few hundred investigators in the past two years, the division says it doesn't have the resources to address each complaint and focuses instead on cases that will have the "biggest impact on the greatest number of workers."

The division doesn't act on about one in 10 complaints and advises those workers that they have a right to sue on their own. But exercising that right or finding an experienced employment lawyer to help is often a significant hurdle, federal officials acknowledge.

That's where the Bridge to Justice program comes in. Workers can get a toll-free number that directs them to an ABA-approved lawyer referral service in their area.

Some readers — and corporate lawyers — at this point might be thinking that the government is helping the plaintiffs' bar beat up on businesses. Ruckelshaus says she's heard Bridge to Justice criticized as "a jobs program for trial lawyers."

But, she adds: "The law is the law." Employers who skirt it and exploit workers have an unfair advantage over employers who play by the rules, she says.

And lawyer referrals don't necessarily mean a rash of new lawsuits, says Sheldon Warren, chair of the ABA's lawyer referral committee that helped create the program. A consultation with a lawyer also can reveal that a worker's complaint doesn't have merit, he says.

Besides, Warren adds, state and local bar associations offer lawyer referrals for businesses, too.

When employees call the referral number, they will be asked to provide their ZIP code to get contact information for local services. Fees for lawyers vary, and employees should discuss that upfront with the attorney.

The wage and hour division also has made it easier for workers to get documents related to the investigation of their complaint, which can help build their case. Previously, they had to file a time-consuming Freedom of Information Act request to get the documents.

The Bar Association of Baltimore City (410-539-3112) is handling the referrals for all of Maryland and the District of Columbia. So far, it has received a handful of callers from the Bridge to Justice program, says Alicia Gipe, director of public services.

F.J. Collins, an employment lawyer in Baltimore, is part of the program.

Collins says the types of cases he sees here involve employers "trying to squeeze extra hours out of people without compensating them for all the hours worked." For example, an employer may require employees to pick up supplies before heading out on a job, but not count that time as work, he says.

Another worrisome trend is discrimination against pregnant women, Collins adds. Employers might opt to fire a worker rather than accommodate a leave of absence for a child's birth, he says.

Nationally, complaints often entail employers getting around minimum-wage laws by paying workers off the books or as independent contractors — making it more difficult to tell whether employees are getting their due, says Ruckelshaus.

Or, an employer might give workers management titles and claim they are exempt from overtime pay, when in reality they work more than 40 hours a week doing grunt work like everyone else, she says.

The Bridge to Justice program will be monitored to see whether workers take advantage of it. With the job market so tight these days, some workers may worry about making waves for fear of being fired while others who have been laid off might feel they have nothing to lose by complaining.

If they do have legitimate grievances and decide to fight for their rights, the Bridge to Justice program may help them get a fair shake.

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