Strengthening Government Enforcement of Wage Laws

Because violations of minimum wage and overtime laws are growing in low-wage industries across the country, government must play an active role in protecting workers and ensuring that they are paid the money they are owed.  But while our nation's economy and our workplaces have changed fundamentally in recent decades, our federal and state government enforcement efforts have largely failed to keep pace.  The United States Department of Labor and most state labor departments still focus on investigating individual claims, using their scarce resources to tackle low-impact smaller cases.

NELP and our allies work with state agencies at every level of government to modernize outdated enforcement strategies and pursue more strategic, proactive enforcement.  We help agencies design enforcement plans that not only address individual claims but also send a strong signal to employers that it is unacceptable to violate minimum wage and overtime laws.  In the process, we level the playing field for employers who play by the rules and pay workers the wages they are owed.

In particular, NELP pursues several concrete strategies for reforming the way that government agencies enforce wage-and-hour laws:

  • Overhauling state labor departments:  We lead coalitions of community groups, worker centers, legal advocates, and labor unions in pursuing key reforms to improve the way that state labor departments enforce existing wage-and-hour laws, for example, through recommendations to the New York State Department of Labor.

  • Strengthening state enforcement authority:  We help community groups and state enforcement agencies around the country design and propose legislation to enhance their tools for enforcing important worker protections.  See especially our report, Justice for Workers: State Agencies Can Combat Wage Theft.

  • Modernizing federal enforcement strategies: We develop reforms for the United States Department of Labor, drawing on best practices from state labor departments and proven legislative reforms.

  • Encouraging community collaborations:  We build bridges between state agencies and community groups, worker centers, and labor unions so that the agencies can take advantage of these "eyes and ears" on the ground to better target resources and understand industry practices.

  • Designing enforcement strategies for attorneys general:  We advise state attorneys general - states' chief legal officers - on best practices for pursuing meaningful wage-and-hour investigations for workers most in need of protection.

For more information on our work in this area, please contact Cathy Ruckelshaus, cruckelshaus@nelp.org.

Other Key Resources:

Jennifer Brand, Adding Labor to the Docket: The Role of State Attorneys General in the Enforcement of Labor Laws (2007)

New York State Department of Labor, Investigation Marks New Proactive and Systemic Approach to Rooting Out Violations (2008)

United States Department of Labor, 1999-2000 Report on Initiatives (2001)

National networks of worker centers that engage government agencies on wage theft campaigns include Domestic Workers United, Interfaith Worker Justice, National Day Labor Organizing Network, and Restaurant Opportunities Centers United

Labor unions around the country are encouraging government enforcement efforts as well.  For a listing, see Catherine K. Ruckelshaus, Labor's Wage War, 35 Fordham Urb. L.J. 373 (2008)