The Labor Department adds muscle to its wage and hour enforcement work

If you like going after companies that cheat their employees on wages, this might be the job for you. The Labor Department wants to hire one hundred investigato...

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If you like going after companies that cheat their employees on wages, this might be the job for you. The Labor Department wants to hire one hundred investigators in its wage and hour division. The Federal Drive with Tom Temin got more now from the division’s acting administrator, Jessica Looman.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Ms. Looman, good to have you on.

Jessica Looman: Thanks so much, Tom. Glad to be here.

Tom Temin: So 100 investigators, that sounds like a heavy hire. Where do you look for people elsewhere in the federal government? Or can people apply from external?

Jessica Looman: Yeah, it’s absolutely critical that we make sure that we have enough investigators across the country in the Wage and Hour Division to make sure that we are providing the worker protections that the Wage and Hour Division is here to provide. We protect about 148 million workers across the country. And we enforce things like minimum wage, and overtime and child labor protections as well as the Family Medical Leave Act and government contracting worker protections.

So the way that we do that is we make sure that we have investigators in the field, in workplaces, at work sites to ensure that workers are getting their rights. So we did announce a really large hire. And that’s because we know that we need more workers across the country to help protect workers. And we did that in nine different regions, so that we could make sure that we spread out the new workers as much as we possibly could. And we’re really excited, we got over 3,000 applicants for these jobs. And that, just again, demonstrates a number of things, one, which is that there are so many people across the country who are interested in public service. And that is what coming to work at the Wage and Hour Division is about and also the hope and goal that we had been thinking about how can we increase the diversity of our own workforce in the Wage and Hour Division so that our workforce reflects the people that we’re trying to protect across this country, including low wage workers.

So, to answer your question, we do hire folks from within federal government to come and work for the Wage and Hour Division. We also hire new graduates, we hire veterans, and we really focus on making sure that language skills are really, really important for Wage and Hour Division. So really wide, diverse area that we draw from and really excited about people who want to come and work with us.

Tom Temin: And what skills do people need to be an investigator for Wage and Hour?

Jessica Looman: Well, first and foremost, we are a mission driven organization. And so really, a commitment to making sure that you want to help protect workers is our first and foremost goal. You do need a college degree in order to be considered an investigator, which is just one of those criteria that we have. This is a professional job that we continue to hire for. And there’s a career ladder and career progression through the federal government once you join the Wage and Hour Division, and we try to make sure that we provide comprehensive training on investigative skills, understanding the laws that we enforce, and continuing to develop folks’ professional skills. So you don’t have to know everything about Wage and Hour in order to come to Wage and Hour, we want to make sure that you really are committed to the professional development that we are providing around making sure that investigators have the skills that they need to protect workers.

Tom Temin: Because the regulations and statutes that govern all of these different areas, as you mentioned, minimum wages, overtime, child labor, even working with the Office of Federal Contractor Compliance Programs, another part of Labor. Is all of this in a format that people can access electronically and do searches, and have maybe a little bit of artificial intelligence for the problem at hand. Or do they have to thumb through 1,000s and 1,000s of pages.

Jessica Looman: So in order to do our work, we really have continued to use more innovative tools, to your point, there’s so much more information available, there’s so much we’re really, we call a planning organization. So we look at industry mapping, we look at how we can make sure we understand where violations are most likely to occur. So we do all of that work, so that we can really be as impactful as possible. Because with 148 million workers at 10 million workplaces, we have to really be focused on low wage workers that are vulnerable to exploitation that are most likely to need our help. And so we do that through using all of the tools that are available to us. And so I think that the skill set that are really we just continue to develop and continue to evolve at the Wage and Hour Division and the folks that are in the field, the folks that are training folks in the field, and the new investigators that will join us are just really critical to this innovation, as well as to the development of strong worker protection programs.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Jessica Looman, she’s acting director of the Wage and Hour Division at the Labor Department. And when you hire someone, how long does it take for them to become productive? I imagine there’s a pretty steep learning curve and that they have to have some training period.

Jessica Looman: Yeah, absolutely. And we, again, the Wage and Hour Division has been incredibly committed to career development and professional development and training. It’s actually something that’s held up in the entire Department of Labor as well as across federal government. We have what we call Basic One. It’s an intensive cohort based training program. So all of these new investigators will come in, and they’ll learn together about the laws that we enforce as well as all the tools and techniques that we use to enforce those laws. And then they start being mentored in the field. And then we bring them all back in for what we call Basic Two, I know we’re not very creative in our names for training, but bring them in for that follow up. So it’s initiation and then experience and then we do additional training to make sure, and that all happens within the first 18 months to 24 months of someone’s starting with the Wage and Hour Division, so that they really develop the confidence skills, tools, understanding of how to do our work.

Tom Temin: And those that are already established and become proficient at this, do they do most of their work from the office? Or do they visit workplaces and talk to people on sites?

Jessica Looman: The reason that we’re called investigators is because we actually go to work sites, we visit where workplaces are, we interview workers, we interview employers, we conduct conferences with workers and employers, and really try to get to a really strong understanding about how we can help employers be in compliance with the laws and make sure that workers get their paycheck on payday the way it should be. That’s our first and foremost goal is to prevent violations and to make sure employers understand their obligations and workers understand their rights. And then we also do on-site investigations, where when we find violations, we remedy those violations, and we get the back wages for the workers who should have had those wages in the first place.

Tom Temin: Yes, I read the press releases. And it’s amazing how many cases do come up each week and how the cases come to the attention of the Labor Department? Is it mostly people phoning you know, almost like a whistleblower situation where people call in and say, hey, we’re being cheated out of overtime, or there’s a 12 year old working here in a frozen meat warehouse.

Jessica Looman: So we recovered about $230 million dollars in back wages last year for about 190,000 workers. We do about 25,000 cases a year. Those cases come to us in two ways, to your point, one is we have 200 offices across the country, we have a 1-800 number, and a lot of people in their advocates and people who care about them call us and say I think this person’s supposed to be getting overtime, I think I’m supposed to be getting time to express milk for my nursing child. Like we all have the laws, and they call us and they ask us for help. And so a lot of the cases that we do are initiated from complaints and people who call us and ask us for help. But we also with the Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division, we also initiate cases based on our strategic initiatives. And based on our data driven strategies around where low wage workers are most vulnerable to violations, but are least likely to come to us and complain either because they are aware of or concerned about retaliation for making their complaints. So we do both. And we find that we are able to have a really big impact on worker protections because we do both complaint based and agency initiated work.

Tom Temin: And are your investigators, do they have law enforcement powers? That is to say if they want to initiate an investigation, you know, the company can say, well, you can’t set foot in my property, or can they set foot where they need to go?

Jessica Looman: So we have a lot of authority in the Wage and Hour Division but there’s sort of two different ways that we approach it, we have a lot of authority, employers are required to keep records, they’re required to provide us records, they’re required to demonstrate their compliance with the laws. And for the most part, we get cooperation from employers, because they understand and recognize that this is our obligation. When we do find issues related to particularly concerning issues around human trafficking or criminal violations, we work closely with our criminal law enforcement partners at those state, local and federal levels. And we make referrals to federal criminal law enforcement agencies where necessary, but for the most part, the work that we’re doing is really about, we go into workplaces, we help make sure workers are getting the rights that they’re supposed to have. And if they’re not, we get them the wages that they’re supposed to get.

Tom Temin: And with that 25,000 cases a year. Are you in a backlog situation? I mean, a lot of government casework. Sometimes the case loads pile up so that their backlogs of lots of cases, let’s say, and it could be 2, 3, 4 years, what’s your backlog like? And how fast can you close?

Jessica Looman: Sure. So it depends, of course, because we are opening cases based on both complaints and directed, initiated investigations, we really manage our caseload in that way. That also does, to your point, mean that there are some cases that we may not be able to take, right, because we’re trying to be as strategic as possible and as impactful as possible. Also answer your question, a Wage and Hour case can take, it varies, really sometimes a Wage and Hour case is as much as a worker saying, hey, I didn’t get my last paycheck from my employer. And that means that a Wage and Hour person calls up that employer and says, you need to provide this worker their last paycheck, and we resolve it and that case gets closed and we are able to help that individual worker and move on. So those are some of our cases. And then a lot of our cases really require a good deal of payroll review, document analysis. Was there a long standing? Our statute of limitations is about two years. So for the last two years, who didn’t get paid overtime? And how can we make sure that those workers get their overtime that they were supposed to get? And of course, those cases do take us longer. But again, our goal is always to make sure that we get the recovery for the worker that they’re supposed to get.

Tom Temin: So do you have a backlog, then?

Jessica Looman: I guess what I would say is, we don’t think about it as a backlog. We think about it as, we want to make sure that we are trying to close our cases as quickly as possible. But we are also trying to be diligent in how we do our investigations, so that we have the strongest cases at the time that we do close those. But that said, one of the reasons we want to hire more investigators is because more investigators means we can do more cases. And that’s really our goal and our focus is we want to be where workers need us when they need us, in their workplaces, everywhere across the country. So that if they have an issue, they know that they can come to the Wage and Hour Division and we can help them.

Tom Temin: And at the end of the hiring, how many investigators are you authorized to have?

Jessica Looman: So we continue to try to increase the number of investigators, just candidly, we want more. They’re always going to be need more investigators, we always want to have as many investigators as we can. So we anticipate that this is the first round of a hiring program that we will continue to invest in over the next several years so that we can continue to bring more folks into the Wage and Hour Division and into the field.

Tom Temin: So is it 1,000s? 10s of 1,000s? Hundreds? What is the workforce? Give us the order of magnitude of that investigative workforce?

Jessica Looman: Sure, right now we have between 700 and 800 investigators across the country. And again, we’re trying to continue to build up our ranks so that we can have more workers protected across the country,

Tom Temin: Jessica Looman Acting Director of the Wage and Hour Division at the Labor Department. Thanks so much for joining me.

Jessica Looman: Thank you so much, really appreciate it.

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