Imagine if your employer threatened to “make [an employee’s] life bad” or “break [an employee’s] teeth” if he found out which of his employees was cooperating with a government investigator.
Unfortunately, this scenario really happened. This week, a judge issued a temporary restraining order requiring an employer who owns six recycling facilities in the San Fernando Valley to stop all intimidation and retaliation against his workers, as well as give Wage and Hour Division investigators access to post and read a statement to the workers about their wage protections and right to participate freely in our investigation into the employer’s pay practices.
Our mission at the Wage and Hour Division is to promote and achieve compliance with labor standards to protect and enhance the welfare of the nation’s workforce, something we do through a combination of outreach, guidance materials and investigations. Our investigators are trained professionals and, when they go into a workplace to do their job, they do so in a way that is as minimally disruptive as possible. In order to do his or her job thoroughly, an investigator will typically need to conduct interviews with workers and employers and review relevant documents. This process allows us to ensure that workers are being paid properly and violations are corrected. We do this because, at the end of the day, the money earned by a worker belongs to that worker.
Worker Intimidation is Wrong and Illegal
Unfortunately, some employers interfere with our investigations by, for example, intimidating workers into not cooperating with an investigation or providing false information to an investigator. This makes the investigation process more difficult and burdensome for everyone and, more importantly, may result in workers not getting the wages to which they are entitled. If workers think they will lose their job by talking to an investigator and telling the truth about how they are treated, many workers – particularly low-wage workers – may just suffer the wage violations rather than risk retaliation.
This kind of situation is why lawyers for the Labor Department went to court this week. The employer had repeatedly questioned workers about our investigation and threatened them with retaliation − including termination and even bodily harm − if they cooperated with our investigation. His tactics were succeeding: workers were afraid for their livelihood, if not their physical safety, and many would not speak to the investigators. The judge recognized the harm that was occurring and took action.
Many Tools to Protect Workers’ Rights
Intimidation and retaliation are against the law and will not be allowed to go unchecked. We have stepped up our enforcement efforts and will use all available tools, including litigation, civil money penalties, liquidated damages, debarment, warrants and even temporary restraining orders when necessary to make sure that workers’ rights are protected as well as to obtain justice for those whose rights have been violated.
So many people work so hard to pay the rent, put food on the table and clothe their children. When employers don’t play by the rules, workers, their families and whole communities suffer. The promise of the wage laws we enforce is that if you do the responsible thing and work hard, then you deserve to have a decent living, and that’s a promise we will uphold by using all available enforcement tools at our disposal.
Laura Fortman is the principal deputy administrator of the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division.