Remember your first job waiting tables? Or, perhaps you recently took a new position as a kitchen worker. Imagine working more than 80 hours a week. How would you react if your boss paid you a flat monthly salary—so low that you never even earned the federal minimum wage and never got overtime pay? To make matters worse, what if your supervisor controlled your livelihood by arranging where you lived and how you got to work, so you were never out of their reach?
That is what I encountered when I began my investigation of a buffet-style restaurant in Macon, Georgia. It will go down as one of the most difficult cases I have ever dealt with in my 14 years with the Wage and Hour Division.
You might think that serious wage violations and deplorable work conditions only occur in sweat shops overseas. But, the reality is that this may also happen in your neighborhood restaurant. Customers of employers who violate the law aren’t always aware that the people serving them are being denied their rightfully earned wages. Those workers are often too afraid to speak up and too afraid to lose their jobs, their livelihoods, and their ability to provide for their families if they make waves.
Working in a restaurant can be tough – there may be long hours, hard labor and low pay. But it is even worse when an owner takes advantage of vulnerable employees by underpaying them.
As part of the investigative process, WHD conducts interviews with employees. Often times this is done in private so employees they are free to talk about their situation away from their worksite. The interviews help establish the hours individuals worked and how much they were paid. Interviews also help identify workers’ particular duties in sufficient detail to decide which exemptions apply, if any, and to confirm that minors are legally employed.
For many vulnerable workers, this can be the first time that someone from the federal government actually takes time to listen to their concerns. It gives me a lot of personal satisfaction knowing that we can help.
When the Wage and Hour Division finds a situation where the employer is violating the Fair Labor Standards Act, we work diligently to get the employees the back pay they have earned. Our preference is to resolve these cases administratively, but it doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes, we have to take an owner to court. That’s what happened in my case. When this is necessary, we have a terrific group of attorneys from the department’s Office of the Solicitor ready to back us up and take cases to trial.
And that is the second part of this story. Two wonderful attorneys from our Atlanta Office of the Solicitor, Karen Mock and Carla Casas worked hard to prepare this case for trial in U.S. District Court in Macon. Most of the workers had left the area, so our lawyers traveled across the southeastern United States to meet them, earn their trust and confidence and prepare them to testify at trial.
In the end, they built a tight case involving lots of pre-trial work, so the defendants felt it was better to agree to a consent judgment rather than risk a trial. Our success came because these attorneys were committed to finding justice for these workers, and these workers were willing to cooperate.
With the help of a great team, 11 former employees will be sharing $225,000 in back wages, liquidated damages, and post judgment interest. Individual payments vary, but two of those workers have more than $43,000 coming to them. Payments for most of the others are between $800 and more than $25,000 apiece.
By being conscious of what is happening in your neighborhood, you can help all of us find justice.
Publicly available enforcement data is available through the free mobile application “Eat Shop Sleep.” This enables consumers, employees and other members of the public to check if a hotel, restaurant or retail location has been investigated by the Wage and Hour Division, and whether FLSA violations were found. The app is available at https://sites.google.com/site/eatshopsleepdol.
In addition, accessible and searchable information on enforcement activities by the U.S. Department of Labor is available at http://ogesdw.dol.gov/search.
Editor’s Note: The author, Ramon Delgado is an investigator with the Wage and Hour Division.