The mission of the Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division (WHD) includes enforcing provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which is designed to ensure that millions of workers are paid the federal minimum wage and overtime. Conducting investigations based on worker complaints is WHD's priority. According to WHD, investigations range from comprehensive investigations to conciliations, which consist primarily of phone calls to a complainant's employer.

In July 2008, the U.S. Government Accountability Office testified on 15 case studies where WHD failed to investigate complaints. This testimony highlights the findings of a follow-up investigation performed at the House Education and Labor Committee's request.

Specifically, GAO was asked to (1) test WHDs complaint intake process in an undercover capacity; (2) provide additional case study examples of inadequate WHD responses to complaints; and (3) assess the effectiveness of WHD's complaint intake process, conciliations, and other investigative tools.

To test WHDs complaint intake process, GAO posed as complainants and employers in ten different scenarios. To provide case study examples and assess effectiveness of investigations, GAO used data mining and statistical sampling of closed case data for fiscal year 2007. GAO plans to issue a follow-up report with recommendations concerning resource needs and the recording of complaints. GAO also confirmed key findings with WHD officials.

GAO found that WHD frequently responded inadequately to complaints, leaving low wage workers vulnerable to wage theft. Posing as fictitious complainants, GAO filed ten common complaints with WHD district offices across the country. The undercover tests revealed sluggish response times, a poor complaint intake process, and failed conciliation attempts, among other problems.

In one case, a WHD investigator lied about investigative work performed and did not investigate GAO's fictitious complaint.

At the end of the undercover tests, GAO was still waiting for WHD to begin investigating three cases — a delay of nearly five, four, and two months, respectively.

Similar to the ten fictitious scenarios, GAO identified 20 cases affecting at least 1,160 real employees whose employers were inadequately investigated.

For example, GAO found cases where it took over a year for WHD 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.

GAO's overall assessment of the WHD complaint intake, conciliation, and investigation processes found an ineffective system that discourages wage theft complaints. With respect to conciliations, GAO found that WHD does not fully investigate these types of complaints or compel employers to pay. In addition, a WHD policy instructed many offices not to record unsuccessful conciliations in its database, making WHD appear better at resolving conciliations than it actually is. WHD's investigations were frequently delayed by months or years, but once complaints were recorded in WHD's database and assigned as a case to an investigator, they were often adequately investigated.

Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis on March 25 issued the following statement:

"I take the issues raised by the Government Accountability Office investigation regarding past Wage and Hour Division enforcement very seriously.

"As secretary of labor, 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.

"The department's Wage and Hour Division has already begun the process of adding 150 new investigators to its field offices to refocus the agency on these enforcement responsibilities. In addition, under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the agency will hire 100 investigators to ensure that contractors on stimulus projects are in compliance with the applicable laws. The addition of these 250 new field investigators, a staff increase of more than a third, will reinvigorate the work of this important agency, which has suffered a loss of experienced personnel over the last several years.

"The U.S. Department of Labor is the voice for working families, and I am dedicated to ensuring compliance with federal labor laws to both strengthen our economy and protect workers in this country."