America’s top wage and hour law enforcer

Jessica Looman

By DON McINTOSH

Jessica Looman was director of the Minnesota building trades union council. Then the Biden administration offered her a job as head of the Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor. In that job, she’s in charge of enforcing minimum wage, overtime and child labor laws, among others. She was in Portland May 16-17 visiting her agents, and she spoke with me later that week by Zoom from her home in St. Paul.

When you were a little kid, did you ever dream that you might be administrator of the Wage and Hour Division? 

You know, I didn’t. My parents were both involved in labor unions. Literally, we said things in our household, like ‘all work is noble.’  But I wouldn’t say that I dreamed of being Wage and Hour administrator. I didn’t know what that was. A lot of people don’t know what the Wage and Hour division is. I mean, the labor world knows and is incredibly proud of the fact that there is a union member who is the Secretary of Labor [Marty Walsh.] But let’s face it, a sub agency of a department …

You’re not a household name yet.

But you know what I get to do? I get to wake up every single day and I get to help 148 million workers at 10 million workplaces. That’s pretty cool. 

Eight years ago, there was one Wage and Hour investigator for every 123,000 workers. Do you know what the figure is today? 

I don’t have that at the tip of my fingers. We don’t have as many investigators as we have had nor as many as we need. We have about 750 investigators. We just actually are adding 100 new investigators so that’s changing the dynamic a little bit.

What are your highest priorities at the Wage and Hour Division? What’s going to happen in the next year or so because you’re there? 

We continue to focus on misclassification of employees as independent contractors, particularly in low wage areas. And then I really am proud of this work that we’re doing around retaliation. We are really focusing on making sure that workers know that when they come forward that the whole Department of Labor is here to protect them.

I have the sense that wage theft has become quite extensive. To what extent there is wage theft occurring—people being cheated out of overtime, not getting breaks, working when they’re not clocked in…?

Those are all issues that we are seeing in our investigations every day. We are seeing workers not getting paid at all. We’re seeing workers not getting paid for all hours worked, where he’s getting, we’re seeing workers not getting paid overtime for overtime hours. But most workers are paid correctly under the law every day. For us that’s what we want to happen for everyone. Success for the Wage and Hour Division is every worker gets paid correctly on pay day.

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