The Biden administration’s efforts to reverse years of attrition and declining morale at the US Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division are being met with skepticism by current and former staff, despite a hiring initiative and field visits from top agency leadership.
The strife at the nation’s enforcer of minimum and prevailing wages, overtime, paid leave, and more than a dozen other laws bubbles up at the same time the agency has been tasked with taking a stricter approach to enforcement and new responsibilities under the infrastructure law.
The agency’s current acting leader, Jessica Looman, announced in May that she would travel throughout each of the division’s five regions to meet with the wage enforcer’s investigators amid the concerns of deteriorating morale and attrition.
Since launching a hiring initiative earlier this year aimed at bringing on 125 new staffers, the agency has hired 39 new staff, putting the total number of investigators at 764, according to a spokesperson.
The agency also lost 32 employees during that same time, meaning the additional hiring has only produced a net of seven new investigators at the division.
“New investigators continue the training and onboarding process and we are happy to share additional information when it is available,” the Wage and Hour Division spokesperson said.
Hostility and favoritism among management at the Wage and Hour Division’s field offices is partially to blame for the declining ranks, two former and one current Wage and Hour Division employees say, pushing agency investigators into early retirements and to seek work elsewhere.
The environment, which has spanned multiple administrations, has caused the number of investigators on board at the agency to decline precipitously in recent months, including through the Biden administration, despite recent efforts to boost morale. The number of investigators on staff at the agency currently is the lowest on record since fiscal 2008.
Leadership from the wage division—which is in charge of enforcing minimum wage, overtime, family medical leave, and other labor laws—met with the union representing WHD employees on June 9 to discuss these concerns.
The National Council of Field Labor Locals, which represents WHD employees, said it was disappointed in the pace of hiring and that agency leadership wasn’t able to provide its hiring plans for fiscal 2023 during the meeting.
“I mean 764 is good,” said Daryl Laurie, president of the NCFLL. “But it’s still not anywhere near where the agency should be. Based on on the workload and the numerous laws wage and hour has to enforce, it’s just insufficient.”
The union will meet with the agency again at the end of the month to further address the concerns, Laurie said.
Tensions and Favoritism
The agency’s focus on counting case metrics to evaluate its regional offices’ enforcement performance, in addition to underqualified management, has created what current and former employees describe as a toxic work environment. Allegations of poor management reach into at least two of the agency’s five regions.
The Wage and Hour Division declined to immediately comment for this story.
One former employee said the manager would yell at them, hang up the phone mid-conversation, and complain about hearing the employee’s child in the background of video calls. That employee said the treatment was worse than their training in the military.
Three former and one current Wage and Hour Division employees said favoritism within the agency’s field offices, especially during the promotion process, also has exacerbated the agency’s issues with retention.
Managers are allowed to reject lists of potential applicants who were qualified for the position if they didn’t like a single candidate or didn’t see a candidate they wanted, one current and two former employees said. If a so-called “certification” list is rejected, the entire pool of applicants are denied, they said, further slowing the hiring process.
The NCFLL’s Laurie, who also worked as a wage and hour investigator for over 25 years, agreed that there is favoritism at the agency.
“Favoritism has always been there, to a certain extent. I’ve seen people over the years who were very qualified to be promoted, and someone else who in my opinion was not as qualified gets promoted,” Laurie said. “Sometimes you really walk away scratching, why someone doesn’t get promoted when they’re certainly qualified.”
Work Piling Up
Investigators at the wage enforcer’s field offices also say they are overwhelmed by the amount of work they are expected to complete, which is driven by the WHD’s expectations of how many case actions each office should take in a given time period.
The WHD set requirements for how many cases regional offices should be investigating. The metrics have pushed overwhelmed investigators to close cases more quickly and resulted in regional offices targeting less complicated cases, current and former WHD officials said.
“So we’re creating low-hanging fruit cases. We play games with the numbers because the number has become the focus. And this is burning people out,” one current employee said.
In response to the concerns about morale and workload, Looman announced in May that she would visit the agency’s district offices to talk with field staffers about their “ideas and concerns,” in addition to setting aside “administrator hours” each week dedicated to talking directly with investigators.
WHD workers, though, are concerned with retaliation if they speak up or being marked as a “troublemaker,” their union said.
“You know, that’s all well and good, but I’m not sure how that is going to go in the long run,” said Laurie of the NCFLL. “We’re kind of hesitant how successful that venture will be.”
The union would prefer to form a working group with WHD staff to bring forward complaints from employees who fear reprisal, Laurie said.
But two former and one current WHD employees said the union has taken too long to help in certain cases.
“If you file a grievance, and even if it gets pushed up to the highest level, it might be three years before you get a response,” the current WHD employee said, “and that can have serious consequences on an employee’s career, because it may involve something pretty serious like, for example, maybe even a termination.”
The NCFLL said it couldn’t comment on specific complaints without more details, but that there are processes in place to address members’ concerns.
“These procedures have their flaws,” the union said in an emailed statement. “But the biggest issue is they require participation by and a dialogue with management. And there are careerists in the management ranks who are unwilling to work with us. We are proud of our bargaining unit employees for the work they do in carrying out the mission of their agency.”