KENNEWICK, Wash. — The Obama administration has spent an average of $68 million more per year over four years to collect an average of $31 million more annually in back wages through the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor, a former Labor official in the Bush administration says.
“It’s amazing they don’t have more to show for it,” Leon Sequeira said at the Washington Farm Labor Association’s Workforce Summit at Kennewick’s Three Rivers Convention Center, Feb. 12.
Sequeira, now a labor attorney in Kentucky, was assistant secretary of labor policy at DOL from 2007 to 2009 and was largely responsible for writing changes to the H-2A visa guestworker program that lasted only a year before the change in administrations.
“Since hope and change arrived in 2009, the department quit publishing enforcement statistics,” he said. A Freedom of Information Act request revealed that the Wage and Hour Division investigated 1,660 agricultural cases in 2012. That is slightly more than in 2008 and generated $5.2 million in back wages for 11,000 employees, Sequeira said. That’s about $472 per worker or $3,132 per case, not including penalties, he said.
But beyond agriculture, the division has averaged $214 million a year in collection of back wages they say employers owe, which is $31 million more per year than the Bush administration average, or a 17 percent increase, he said.
Even with budget sequestration, the Wage and Hour Division’s budget has risen 40 percent to $243 million anticipated for 2014 compared with $175 million in 2008, the last year of the Bush administration, Sequeira said. Staff has risen 55 percent, from 1,208 full-time-equivalent employees to 1,872 and the number of investigators increased from 731 to 1,132, he said. Investigations numbered 36,000 last year and the goal is 37,500 this year with two-thirds in targeted industries including agriculture, he said.
Fewer cases have been closed each year and it takes longer to close them, he said.
In a budget narrative to Congress, Wage and Hour Division officials stated “domestic and temporary non-immigrant agricultural workers endure low wages, unsafe housing and transportation and harsh working conditions,” Sequeira said.
“This blanket statement is shocking and not true. H-2A workers actually have more extensive labor protections than average employees,” he said.
About 29 percent of the division’s directed investigations and 22 percent of its complaint-based investigations result in no violations, he said. The division’s goal is 20 percent for both, he said.
“They want to find more violations. It’s their goal,” he said.
DOL’s use of “hot goods” orders to stop movement of Oregon blueberries was “outrageous” and hopefully a court ruling against it and the USDA consultation mandated in the new farm bill will reduce such occurrences, Sequeira said.
He advised growers to keep good records to be prepared for investigations and noted Wage and Hour investigates under the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act and H-2A regulations.
Investigators are checking for correct wages, piece rate, deductions, transportation and subsistence reimbursement, child labor, housing, vehicles and correct payment of domestic workers hired as corresponding workers to H-2A.