Good luck with that: One wage and hour investigator for every 123,000 workers

At an academic conference May 29 in Portland, newly-installed U.S. Wage and Hour Administrator David Weil outlined the task ahead of him: To enforce minimum wage, child labor, and overtime laws for 135 million workers in 7.5 million establishments … with 1,100 investigators.

David Weil
U.S. Wage and Hour Administrator David Weil

“We can never be in enough places to enforce the law on our own,” Weil told attendees at the 66th annual meeting of the Labor and Employment Relations Association (LERA), “and you could double our allocation and it would still be that same small statistic.”

The national conference was held in Portland May 29-June 1 at the Hilton Portland and Executive Towers. It drew nearly 400 representatives from labor, management, government, academics and neutrals to Portland.

Weil said he plans to continue the approach of his predecessor: educate employers and worker advocates about the law, and use “strategic enforcement” and “directed investigations” to increase compliance.

Weil said that contrasts with the Wage and Hour Division’s historic approach, in which investigations were done only in response to complaints, and tended to focus on back pay awards without trying to understand what was leading to violations of the law.

Weil — a professor in the Boston University School of Management — has written a good deal about labor law enforcement in the modern era of lower worker expectations and increasingly fragile employment relationships. And in a 51-42 vote on April 28, he became the first Wage and Hour administrator to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate since President Barack Obama took office in 2009.

Obama nominated two others to head the agency, which is housed within the Labor Department, but the Senate never voted to confirm them.

The U.S. Constitution gives the president the power to make appointments “with the advice and consent of the Senate.” But Republicans were able to block consent of hundreds of Obama appointees thanks to the Senate’s self-imposed filibuster rule, which in practice allows any and all action to be halted by 40 of the 100 senators. This year Senate Democratic leadership finally did the obvious: It used a simple majority vote to change the filibuster. But it only did so for Senate confirmations of presidential appointments. Legislation, the Senate’s real work, remains almost totally stymied. And it would take legislation to add enforcers to the Wage and Hour Division. Weil said Obama is proposing funding to add 300 more investigators.

[See David Weil’s complete presentation here.]

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