More labor accountability

Nobody likes to get stiffed—especially when it comes to their paycheck.

Wage theft is so prevalent in our society these days as companies look for ways to produce goods and services at a fraction of what it cost five and 10 years ago. It’s not always blatant, often subtle and pernicious—unpaid overtime, unpaid vacation, less money in the paycheck.

But the victim is clear: the worker.

There are many ways that people are getting shorted from what’s owed to them at a time in our history when people need their money the most. Wage theft is a crime, just like any other crime. But it’s policed by the Illinois Department of Labor. When people feel as if they’re owed money, they can file a complaint there.

For example, if a person steals money from a restaurant, they get arrested, and will probably go to jail. But that won’t happen if a restaurant owner withholds money from its workers.

In our new investigation “Waiting in vain,” reporter María Inés Zamudio points out the flaws in the Labor Department’s methods of keeping businesses accountable. As Zamudio finds, most people reaching out to the Labor Department don’t get the help they need. In fact, most people filing complaints wait months, and in some cases more than a year, to get a final determination on their cases. They are discouraged from contacting the department for status updates. When the cases are finally vetted, most people don’t recoup what they’re owed. And in many situations, when the department decides that a business must pay up, there’s no oversight by the Labor Department to make sure that the company actually cut the check.

It’s a problem that’s pervasive and exacerbated by the department’s outdated tracking system and a small staff. Even in Zamudio’s attempt to get data, there were complications. She was denied the information because the department’s antiquated system couldn’t produce the reports. She was also told that providing her with paper records would be too “burdensome.” Ultimately, Zamudio was given paper copies of a two-page summary of complaints for a 12 percent sample of the claims filed for one year, 2010.

I don’t doubt that the Labor Department is working hard to resolve complaints. But their efforts aren’t good enough. The department must shorten the duration people wait to get a resolution to their cases. The department must upgrade the technology for the system it uses to track these critical complaints.

In addition, the department must maintain constant and regular communication to give status updates to people who file complaints. After I file a complaint, I don’t want to know my status a year later, I want to know week to week, if not once a month. Online portals should be available for people to log in and check the status of their complaint themselves.

It’s paramount that the department confirms that the businesses mandated to pay back wages actually paid them. Proof of the payment—whether a cashed check from the business or a required direct deposit to the victim’s account—should be mandatory. And that burden rests on the Labor Department, not the victim of wage theft.

And it shouldn’t end there. Systems should be in place to flag regular scofflaws.

As the Labor Department ushers in a new leader in Joe Costigan, this should be among his top priorities. If the department isn’t there to fight for workers’ rights, then what are they there for?

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