Thursday, January 19, 2012

Abandoning low-wage workers

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Tucked away from public view, or more accurately from public understanding, is a line item in Gov.Bob McDonnell's budget calling for the elimination of Virginia's Wage and Employment Law Division. This division, within the Virginia Department of Labor & Industry, oversees enforcement of wage and employment law as it now stands in 40.1-29 of the Code of Virginia.

Currently, there are seven active compliance officers including an administrative assistant and field operations manager in the division. As the Roanoke area compliance officer, I cover much of central and all of Southwestern Virginia. There is an officer in Winchester and in DOLI's Verona office, as well as three in the Parham Road regional office in Richmond. Vacancies in the Norfolk and Manassas offices have gone unfilled. Citizens' claims for unpaid wages from those regions are shared by the other officers.

In addition to handling claims for unpaid wages, we also enforce the commonwealth's child labor laws and investigate alleged violations of those laws. We work with the issuing officers at area schools and administrative offices who distribute work permits to 14- and 15-year-olds by holding training sessions and answering their questions pertaining to the employment of our minors. For example, I have trained more than 100issuing officers in the past two years in school systems from Wise County to Botetourt down to Halifax.

But the part of the job that has the most immediate impact on the community and individuals is the work we do in resolving claims for unpaid wages. We are impartial investigators, meaning that we take sides with neither party in the dispute. Our only interest is in resolving unpaid wages claims to the best of our limited abilities. Given those limited abilities, 1,423 claims out of 2,185 were resolved with a total payment of wage collection of $429,432 in 2011.

I was assigned more than 230claims. Not all were resolved to the claimant's satisfaction (or mine, for that matter). But of those that were, the result was that more than $63,000 was justifiably paid out to citizens. And in most of these cases, it was accomplished by working with reasonable and cooperative employers with the will to do right by the law.

In addition to this, the Roanoke office alone handled more than 2,800telephone calls from workers and employers alike with questions pertaining to the state's wage and employment law. An additional 700callers were referred to other agencies for help with their stated concern.

Elimination of the division will net a savings to the state in the $300,000 range. If you quickly do the math, you'll note that wage and compliance officers aren't exactly living large or that this impacts the budget in any meaningful way.

In meetings with DOLI leadership, compliance officers have pressed our concern over the fate of citizens with wage complaints. The response to our concerns has been just shy of Scrooge's to the gentlemen collecting for the poor at Christmas: These citizens will be "on their own" and must have some internal "wherewithal" in the pursuit of wages owed. Typically the claims that come across my desk are from people who do not have the means to file in small claims court, much less hire an attorney. In effect, it will soon be open season on workers in this state.

While this is wrong on so many levels for the economically disadvantaged and the working poor, it is also a slap in the face to those employers who abide by the law and treat their employees fairly. Their unscrupulous competition will have an advantage over them. They should be concerned, if not outraged, at this as well.

What happens when the division is officially dissolved? This administration's politically motivated desire to not have an agency of state government servicing the needs of the working poor and economically disadvantaged will be met.

Dishonest employers will not be burdened with even the threat of oversight and will abuse their workforce with abandon.

When the budget is debated in the legislature in the coming weeks, it will be interesting to see if this line item is even addressed. I doubt that it will be. Even to veteran lawmakers it may appear that only a few positions within the division are being eliminated.

What's being eliminated is access to their government by citizens who need it most. It is shameful to disenfranchise further working-class citizens from equal protection and representation under our laws.

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