Deteriorating morale spanning multiple administrations at the nation’s enforcer of minimum wage, family leave, and worker misclassification laws has left the U.S. Labor Department division with the lowest number of investigators in nearly 50 years.
The attrition at the DOL’s Wage and Hour unit could leave some of the country’s most vulnerable workers at risk of abuse, a former agency official said. The exodus also complicates the Biden administration’s ability to execute its promises to strengthen enforcement against companies that take advantage of workers, a problem that will be further strained under the new wage enforcement demands created under the bipartisan infrastructure law.
“Yes, there is a morale problem. And it’s attributable to a couple of distinct dynamics, policies, and practices,” a former regional official said, who requested anonymity to discuss internal agency issues.
The DOL’s wage arm has lost 32 investigators since the end of last year, whittling the agency’s staffing levels to a 50-year low despite a new hiring effort aimed at bringing on 100 new employees. The division is in charge of enforcing more than 15 laws, including overtime and minimum wage protections under the Fair Labor Standards Act, as well as the “prevailing wage” requirements attached to certain federally funded projects that will be created under the bipartisan infrastructure law.
There were 725 investigators at the division at the end of March 2022, according to a Department of Labor spokesperson. That’s the lowest number on record since at least 1973, according to data provided by the DOL.
Two former officials and a union representative said a major contributor to burnout at the agency is its focus on enforcement metrics to measure regional offices’ performance. One regional official says this meant investigators were pressured to close cases without thoroughly investigating them.
“Every district office was saddled with an imposed number of expected compliance actions to be done rather than emphasizing strong, effective enforcement, and allowing people to fully investigate,” the former official explained.
“Quality investigation work, and full investigation work, consistent with our civil law enforcement mandates, has been compromised by the metrics dictating numbers of case actions expected to be done by each district office,” the official added.
A spokesperson for the WHD said the agency is making the most of its resources by building up enforcement staff and providing training.
“Wage and Hour leadership is extremely proud of the work our investigators have done under challenging circumstances over the past few years and we remain fully committed to the WHD mission and all of our staff who work tirelessly on behalf of the nation’s workforce,” a DOL spokesperson said in an emailed statement.
D. Michael Hancock, a former assistant administrator at the Wage and Hour Administration who served at the agency for over 20 years, said the staffing squeeze has been an issue for several years.
“A lot of the investigators that I knew in the agency felt like that they were just barely treading water. And feeling like they weren’t allowed, they really weren’t in a position to effectively do their job, because they were so understaffed,” he said.
The workload pressure has only worsened as attrition has spread.
“As folks leave, for whatever reason when they retire, get promoted to a different agency, or move to another job outside of DOL, the work doesn’t go away,” said Daryl Laurie, president of the National Council of Field Labor Locals, which represents DOL employees. “It just gets distributed to others and it just puts more and more overload on those who are trying to get their cases done and completed,” he said.“It does make it very challenging.”
Former officials also noted that wage and hour investigators also are capped on the general service payscale, leading wage and hour staff to leave for other agencies where the pay is higher and the workload is less.
These issues were compounded when the pandemic began, because investigators were limited in their ability to conduct on-site inspections or interview employers and workers for their investigations.
Laurie said he is hopeful that morale will turn around now that the DOL permitted staff to return to full capacity at the beginning of May. Wage and Hour investigators had started returning to the field before other agency staff, but not at full capacity, he said.
“It does wear on a person,” said Laurie. “A lot of that gets lost when you’re not able to do that in person.”
DOL recruitment effort
The Biden administration has taken efforts to reverse the problem. In January the DOL announced that it was seeking to hire 100 new investigators. But nearly three dozen have left since the hiring effort began.
The agency “is still in the process of bringing on board the newly hired Investigators,” an agency spokesperson said in an email. “We remain committed to bringing on the previously announced 100 Investigators.”
Hancock, who left DOL in 2016 to join Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC as a member of the firm’s Civil Rights and Employment practice group, noted that when the agency brings on new investigators, it can create even more duties for field staff.
“That’s another stressor that when you’re bringing in new people who aren’t fully productive, you’re asking the current staff to be their mentors, and their trainers. That adds another layer of responsibilities on top of what they already have,” Hancock explained.
The investigator attrition also follows a disappointing enforcement year for the division. The agency recovered $234.3 million in back wages in fiscal year 2021, about $23.5 million less than the year prior.