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Workers Roused to Seek Wage Rights
The Wall Street Journal
Melanie Trottman

April 5, 2010
View the Original Article

The Labor Department is encouraging low-wage and immigrant workers to turn in employers who are shortchanging their pay, as part of an expanding effort to enforce wage and hour rules.

Labor Secretary Hilda Solis launched a campaign last week called "We Can Help," asking workers in industries from construction to food services to notify the agency of suspected wage and hour violations.

The agency is also relying on tips from worker advocacy groups, widening efforts by the Obama administration to enlist activist groups to help with enforcement in a range of sectors from toy safety to distracted driving.

However, business groups are expressing concern that the Labor Department's effort will generate unfounded complaints.

Ms. Solis, a Hispanic-American, has signaled from early in her tenure that stepping up enforcement of wage and hour rules would be a high priority. The Labor Department's wage and hour division recently hired more than 250 additional investigators—an increase of one third—and is rolling out a publicity campaign that includes bilingual public-service announcements in Spanish and English.

The ads feature activists like Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers of America, and actor Jimmy Smits, who has Puerto Rican roots and played a successful Hispanic presidential candidate in the TV drama "The West Wing."

The agency and independent groups, including labor federation AFL-CIO, will also distribute posters, fact sheets and booklets on pay and how to report complaints. The agency says its message isn't limited to low-wage and immigrant workers, but it is focusing on these groups because it says they tend to be most vulnerable. "It's about making sure that people know we're here and they know how to reach us," said a Labor Department spokesman, who noted protections cover pay for both legal and illegal immigrants who the agency says it won't punish because of their status.

The Obama administration has been pushing to step up enforcement of wage and hour laws—a top agenda item for unions that were key supporters of President Barack Obama's election campaign and his health-care bill.

Since the beginning of 2009, the wage and hour division has recovered more than $171 million in back wages for at least 214,000 workers. The Labor Department didn't provide any comparison figures for back wages collected under President George W. Bush.

Bill Lurye, associate general counsel for the AFL-CIO, said the group's affiliates would disseminate material to workers, arrange meetings between workers and wage and hour staff, and hold forums at union halls where workers can watch videos about minimum wage and how to track their hours worked.

"We think the campaign is a creative and reasonable way to inform workers of their rights under the Fair Labor Standards Act," he said.

Business groups and management-side lawyers say they are concerned the campaign will result in more litigation toward employers, some of it frivolous.

"We would hope that the department would carefully review those [complaints] before bringing charges against employers because employers, particularly small ones, are going to have to use a considerable amount of resources to prove their innocence," said Randel Johnson, senior vice president of labor for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Mr. Johnson also questioned the appropriateness of the agency's partnerships. "Deputizing people outside the government who may have their own agendas is troublesome," he said.

Other federal agencies are also leveraging outside resources. Inez Tenenbaum, the Obama-appointed chairwoman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission that came under fire during the Bush administration for a rash of toy safety recalls, hosted a group of state attorneys general in October to discuss ways to better work together to enforce the law.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is working with a new nonprofit group to raise awareness about the dangers of distracted driving. Some states have passed laws banning texting or handheld cell-phone use while driving, but Congress hasn't enacted legislation to fill the gap.

Mr. LaHood has said he planned to work with and push Congress to take action, but in the meantime, he said, "[we] can't do it all ourselves."

Write to Melanie Trottman at melanie.trottman@wsj.com

Corrections & Amplifications:
Inez Tenenbaum was appointed by President Barack Obama to be chairwoman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission. An earlier version of this article incorrectly implied that she was appointed by President George W. Bush.