Labor pains: How a local case helped resurrect Virginia’s labor investigations

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Last week, the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry made a small change to its website: It added a link to a downloadable wage claim form, something that had been missing since the state slashed DOLI’s budget and eliminated six wage theft investigators from its Wage and Hour Department almost exactly a year ago. Last week, the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry made a small change to its website: It added a link to a downloadable wage claim form, something that had been missing since the state slashed DOLI’s budget and eliminated six wage theft investigators from its Wage and Hour Department almost exactly a year ago.

Last week, the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry made a small change to its website: It added a link to a downloadable wage claim form, something that had been missing since the state slashed DOLI’s budget and eliminated six wage theft investigators from its Wage and Hour Department almost exactly a year ago. The change represents a small victory for local advocates who pressed for the resurrection of the division. But they say it wasn’t a total win, and the department remains underfunded.

The budget cuts scrapped the arm of DOLI that investigates workers’ claims of denied or withheld pay. They eluded lawmakers at first, said House Minority Leader and Charlottesville Democratic Delegate David Toscano. He said the impetus for the cuts wasn’t clear, but that “Republicans’ control of the House has not been particularly conducive to supporting labor issues.”

Last fall, 15 painters hired by a subcontractor to work on the new Regal theater in the Stonefield shopping center on Route 29 approached DOLI, saying they’d been cheated out of wages, said Tim Freilich, an attorney with Charlottesville’s Legal Aid Justice Center, which eventually took up the men’s case.

They were told that due to budget cuts, the department had reassigned staff and stopped investigating complaints under $2,500.

“A unit which had been investigating, on average, about 2,500 claims a year and recovering about $385,000 per year for clients suddenly no longer existed,” said Freilich. The workers were told they’d have to make their own arguments in court in order to get their pay, he said. With the help of the LAJC, they did just that, but their experience became fuel for a lobbying effort to restore funding to DOLI.

Freilich worked with Toscano and Democrats in the Senate to craft two solutions to what they saw as a serious lapse in worker protections. The first option was to restore the funding for the investigations department. The second was one they predicted—rightly, as it turned out—would seem a lot more onerous to the business lobby: A bill that would have allowed employees who won wage theft disputes in court to claim triple damages, attorneys fees, and other costs.

“It was basically saying, ‘Look, if we’re not going to have administrative enforcement, let’s make sure claimants have the ability and incentive to hire a private attorney and go to court,’” Freilich said.

He and Toscano said the leverage bill and testimony from the Charlottesville painters and other workers helped rally support for funding restoration from the business lobby, including the Virginia Chamber of Commerce—support that ultimately helped pass the budget amendment re-funding DOLI’s Wage and Hour Department.

The situation isn’t perfect, said Freilich. Where there used to be six staffers conducting investigations, there will now be three. He called it a good start—and a bipartisan nod toward the idea that the burden shouldn’t be on workers to ensure they get a full day’s pay for a full day’s work.

“There are still going to be more claims than they can possibly handle,” said Freilich. “But at least there’s an effort to reestablish the unit.”

For those who question the need for such a unit, Freilich says to look at the numbers. DOLI’s most recent annual report, from 2011, shows the department responded to 2,201  claims for unpaid wages from the public that year. When investigations stalled, “those claims didn’t disappear,” Freilich said. The LAJC took up many of them, and won judgements against two Charlottesville employers. But nobody can go it alone, he said.

“We’re regularly turning down cases, because we don’t have the resources to take every legitimate case,” he said.

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