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UPDATE: Labor Secretary Hilda Solis announced the department’s Wage and Hour Division will add 250 new investigators, a staff increase of more than a third. The agency already has begun the process of adding 150 new investigators to its field offices. In addition, another 100 investigators will be hired to ensure that contractors on economic recovery projects comply with the applicable laws. This is a big step in the right direction to rebuild the agency, which lost more than 200 investigators during the Bush administration.

The federal agency that is supposed to protect workers and enforce minimum wage, overtime and child labor laws is failing miserably, leaving low-income workers vulnerable to wage theft. In a report released today, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) says the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division “has left thousands of actual victims of wage theft who sought federal government assistance with nowhere to turn.”

GAO investigators posing as fictitious complainants filed 10 common complaints with Wage and Hour district offices across the country. In one case, the division failed to investigate a complaint that underage children in Modesto, Calif., were working during school hours at a meatpacking plant with dangerous machinery.

In another case, a Labor Department investigator lied about looking into the case at all. And when a GAO investigator posing as a dishwasher called four times to complain about not being paid overtime for 19 weeks, the Miami field office failed to return his calls for four months. When it did, the report said, an official told him it would take eight to 10 months before they would even begin investigating his case.

The GAO also identified 20 cases affecting at least 1,160 real employees whose employers were inadequately investigated. For example, GAO found cases where it took more than a year for the Wage and Hour Division to respond to a complaint, cases closed based on unverified information provided by the employer, and cases dropped when the employer did not return phone calls.

At a hearing today on the GAO report, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said there is a pattern of inaction in properly addressing thousands of cases involving overtime, minimum wage and child labor violations. According to Miller:

These violations of the law are not trivial. Those most vulnerable to wage theft are likely bearing the brunt of our nation’s economic crisis. Families where a breadwinner has his or her wages stolen still have rent to pay, mouths to feed, children to clothe and medicine to buy. They can’t afford to be paid less than what the law says.

Simply put, when a business pockets wages due to its workers, it is theft. And it is illegal.

Such wage theft is an epidemic in the country, says Kim Bobo, executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice and author of Wage Theft in America: Why Millions of Working Americans Are Not Getting Paid—And What We Can Do About It.

If the question is whether the Wage and Hour Division is doing important work, the answer is “yes.” If the question is if the Department of Labor is effectively enforcing the wage and hour laws, the answer must be a resounding “no.”

There are several ways to solve the problem, Bobo says, but the first priority has to be getting more wage and hour investigators.

There are less than 750 wage and hour investigators for 130 million workers. It’s just not enough. They can’t possibly do the job.

Last year, the GAO reported that under the Bush administration, the number of wage and hour inspectors dropped from 942 to 732. At the same time, the number of investigations into employers’ refusal to pay minimum wage, overtime or even any wages at all has dropped from 47,000 in 1997 to 30,000 last year.

In a statement, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis says she is boosting the Wage and Hour Division investigative staff by more than one-third.

I am committed to ensuring that every worker is paid at least the minimum wage, that those who work overtime are properly compensated, that child labor laws are strictly enforced and that every worker is provided a safe and healthful environment.