Jan. 18, 2006
Suit Filed to Help Unlocatable Low-Wage Workers
Obtain Back Wages
Thousands of Low-Wage Workers Are Owed Money From Settlements; Department of Labor Won’t Release Their Names
WASHINGTON, D.C. – To help alert nearly 100,000 “unlocatable” low-wage workers that they are owed back wages as part of government settlements, a Chicago-based worker rights organization today sued the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) to obtain the workers’ names.
Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ), represented by the consumer advocacy organization Public Citizen, filed the suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The DOL has refused to release the information, claiming it could invade the workers’ privacy. The refusal came even though for two years, the DOL worked with IWJ on a project to create a searchable Web site to assist the government in disbursing back wage settlements to unlocatable workers. The project was the DOL’s idea.
“Obtaining this information would help thousands of past, present and future low-wage workers,” said Kim Bobo, executive director of IWJ. “Not only would it alert workers of money that is rightfully theirs, but it could encourage more workers to report wage theft and other wage violations. We are surprised and baffled that the agency charged with looking out for workers refuses to release information that could help connect workers to money owed them.”
The suit stems from a project that began in 2002, when Tammy McCutcheon, then director of the DOL’s Wage and Hour Division, encouraged IWJ to create a searchable database that could be put on the Web and could help the agency disburse back wage settlements to unlocatable workers. The Web site was always meant to be public.
IWJ purchased domain names, hired a consultant to build the Web site and worked extensively with the DOL’s technology department. Then, in 2004, DOL officials told IWJ that they had privacy concerns and ceased all communication with IWJ.
In April 2005, IWJ submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the DOL for the names of all workers owed back wages by federal settlements. The DOL denied the request, citing a privacy clause in FOIA.
With the help of the Citizen Advocacy Center, a non-profit legal organization in Elmhurst, Ill., and Public Citizen, IWJ appealed the decision. The DOL had 20 business days to respond but never did. An agency FOIA director recently told IWJ staff in a phone conversation that responding to the appeal is not on the agency’s priority list. The director, April Nelson, refused to say when DOL intended to respond.
As of 2004, the latest year for which information is available, approximately 95,000 workers due back wages from settlements were “unlocatable.” The department at that time had $32 million in its Backwage Collection and Disbursement System. The DOL’s Inspector General in the past has recommended that the DOL increase its efforts to locate workers and distribute back wages.
“It’s hard to understand how releasing these workers’ names would violate their privacy, especially given that they will benefit significantly if they are found through this process,” said Adina Rosenbaum, the Public Citizen attorney handling the case. “Disclosure of these names will help the workers and will shed light on how the agency operates – an objective that falls squarely within the purpose of FOIA.”
A copy of the suit is available by clicking here.