Laura Fortman, deputy administrator of the US Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, spoke to the NAGLO group about the common goals and challenges her office faces that states face as well. As a former commissioner of labor for Maine, she offered a unique perspective of having been on both sides of the state and federal level.
“The more we can talk to each other, the better it is for all of us to do our jobs,” she said. “I don’t think there is anyone in this room who thinks they have all of the resources they need to do the monumental task that is in front of you.”
Fortman said the basic, fundamental mission of her division was that workers in the US receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. She said most employers are “doing the right thing,” but she also said that there are plenty of employers who steal from their workers.
In one example, Fortman talked about a woman named Ethel Williams. Her employer of nine years fired her while she was in treatment at an intensive care unit in Las Vegas, Nevada. She lost her apartment, her car, was forced to move from place to place to keep from being homeless. Eventually she had to apply for food stamps. Williams sought help from the Wage and Hour Division in Los Vegas. An investigation found she was wrongfully terminated under the Family and Medical Leave Act, and she received a check for $16,000 in back wages. She has since gotten her life back on track.
Fortman said there are some keys to keeping employers in compliance with the laws. She emphasized education and awareness. Her team holds frequent meetings with stakeholders. She has staff members who are multi-lingual and can talk with workers in their own language. When companies break the rules, her agency works to make sure certain certificates are revoked as a deterrent.
She said her agency is working on an employer guide that should help explain wage and hour issues such as the Family and Medical Leave Act.
“Enforcement is not enough,” she said. “We try very hard to improve compliance through education.”