Local News

State has little power to chase after unpaid wages

Posted December 16, 2008 5:22 p.m. EST
Updated December 16, 2008 7:38 p.m. EST

— As more companies shut down in the struggling economy, more employees are not only finding themselves unemployed, they also find they're getting stiffed for wages owed to them.

The state Department of Labor has received about 5,500 complaints this year alone from employees who claim that they haven't been paid for their work. But officials said a growing backlog and limited enforcement power make it difficult to recoup money for employees.

"They think that, No. 1, I can say money is due and I can get them a check, and I can't," said Jim Taylor, administrator of the Wage and Hour Bureau at the Department of Labor.

The bureau will go to court to help workers in a limited number of cases, but most cases are dealt with out of court, with state investigators urging employers to comply with labor laws, Taylor said. The agency has won $285,000 in back pay for employees so far this year, he said.

"Generally, when (employees) call us, they need their money yesterday," he said, adding that he empathizes with frustrated workers. "They're just tired of waiting and they're just in dire economic straits."

Seventeen employees of Raleigh-based  USHomeComfort, for example, said the building contractor still owes them more than $25,000 total in back wages after it closed unexpectedly two weeks ago.

Taylor said the backlog of complaints makes collecting back wages difficult. His 18 investigators have watched the list of pending cases grow from 722 in June 2005 to more than 2,100.

"The number of calls we get – the number of complaints we get – (is) increasing," he said.

When Raleigh's Prime Only Restaurant shut down suddenly in October, workers filed complaints with the state, hoping to get paid. The case still doesn't have an investigator assigned to it, Taylor said.

"The issues (in that case) are going to be, are there any assets, which I don't think there are," he said.