After 44 years with the U.S. Labor Department, 24 as the head of the Long Island office in Westbury, Irv Miljoner retired on Jan. 3. During his time at the helm, the office recovered more than $100 million in back wages for underpaid workers. Some of those recouped wages resulted from initiatives targeting industries known for high rates of violations. On Miljoner's watch the local office, which conducted 300 to 400 investigations a year, achieved the distinction as the Labor Department office whose investigations led to the highest number of legal cases over the last 20 years.
What is the state of compliance with federal labor laws on Long Island?
Compliance rates remain fairly consistent, with the most egregious violations continuing to be in low-wage industries such as restaurants, car washes, gas stations, nail salons, hotels, convenience stores, landscaping, day labor, etc. There’s so much competition and low profit margins in these industries that there’s an incentive to find any available edge. Throw in the additional aspects of undocumented workers, who largely populate these workplaces. They are often uninformed about the law covering them, scared to complain and frequently paid in cash off the books.
What violations are common in those industries?
The most common violation is failure to pay required overtime premium pay for overtime hours worked. Employing workers off the books and otherwise falsifying payroll records are also common violations.
What was the most memorable case your office investigated?
I’d have to say that the Long Island slave case was most memorable. The trial (in 2007) was sensational, and it was alarming to realize that, as the Newsday headline screamed, “They Kept Slaves on LI.” This was a clear and blatant example of human trafficking and the worst kind of labor exploitation, taking place in tony towns right here on Long Island. The Indonesian women were held in servitude, chained to the wall, made to eat garbage (and worse), and paid virtually nothing, garnering back wage restitution of nearly $1 million (later reduced to $680,000 by a federal appeals court). The Justice Department had an ongoing human trafficking task force for Long Island. We had been in the task force. Fortunately they recognized that human trafficking was a labor issue.
What does your office do to help employers comply with the law?
On Long Island we’re proud of the many education efforts undertaken to assist employers, industry groups, business organizations, and the advocates representing them such as Attorneys, accountants, HR professionals and others. We conduct workshops, staff exhibit tables at employer and HR conferences, deliver presentations to Attorneys and CPAs. We also provide one-on-one consultations with employers.
Are employers responsive to those efforts?
We’ve seen numerous examples of employers voluntarily coming into compliance following one of our events. They were glad to see that the competitive playing field could be leveled if others came into compliance, so they were compelled to come clean as well. In one of the most notable examples, we delivered a workshop for a restaurant industry segment where over 90 percent of them had been in violation. After that workshop, with over 70 owners, we found that the violation rate in our sample had improved by about 50 percent.
We have had an impact on the industry, but it took the industry to want to come into compliance, too. They are proud of it. There were multiple occasions where I have gone out to eat, and an owner or manager would recognize me. I was out to Sunday brunch with my daughter, and an owner came over and offered to show me [the restaurant’s] new record-keeping system.
What should the Labor Department do to make sure employers adhere to federal labor laws?
Simple: Hire more investigators. Reallocate more agency resources to front-line enforcement. There is no substitute for employers seeing the presence of the cop on the beat. Legitimate, complying employers want more, full and fair enforcement to level that competitive playing field.
There are currently 17 investigators in the Long Island District Office. It’s down slightly from 19 a couple of years ago, due to a continuing hiring freeze.
What should workers do if they suspect their employer is violating the law? What’s the process like for an employee who calls in a complaint?
On Long Island we welcome and value complainants. Workers can write a letter to us or call 516-338-1890 or walk into our office in Westbury, even without an appointment. Complainants’ information is kept strictly confidential. We vet the complaint fully, establish its validity, and generally investigate for all workers in the establishment. Taking adverse action against any worker who has been involved in a federal wage hour case is prohibited by law. Complaints by third parties and even employers are commonly received. Why would an employer complain to the Labor Department? They’re complaining about a violator who is underpaying workers, making it impossible for the legitimate ones to compete.