New app another tool for workers in wage disputes

Sunday, May 22, 2011

WASHINGTON -- Workers who don't trust the boss to keep track of their wages can now do it themselves with a new smartphone application from the Department of Labor. But employers worry that the time sheet app, along with other new initiatives, could encourage even more wage and hour lawsuits.

The app lets workers calculate regular work hours, break time and overtime pay to create their own wage records. Department officials say the information could prove valuable in a dispute over pay or during a government investigation when an employer has failed to keep accurate records.

"This app will help empower workers to understand and stand up for their rights when employers have denied their hard-earned pay," Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said.

The app is the latest example of the Obama administration's push for more aggressive enforcement of wage and hour laws. The agency has hired about 300 more investigators to probe complaints of unpaid work time, lack of overtime pay and minimum wage violations.

Last year, the agency began a "Bridge to Justice" program that, for the first time, helps connect aggrieved workers with private lawyers if the department's Wage and Hour Division is too busy to handle a complaint.

As a result, legal experts say, wage and hour compliance has become a leading concern for employers as the new policies help drive up litigation over unpaid wages, also known as wage theft.

"The government is focusing on it like never before," said Gerald Maatman, an employer-side labor lawyer based in Chicago. "I think the mantra is kind of, 'All enforcement, all the time, 24/7."'

Workers brought a record number of wage and hour suits against employers last year, according to an analysis of court filings by Maatman's firm, Seyfarth Shaw. Nearly 6,800 such suits were filed in 2010, about 700 more than the previous year. Most were collective or class actions.

The new smartphone app is expected to help low wage immigrant workers, many of whom can't afford a computer but keep cellphone as a lifeline to family back home.

The app is currently available for the iPhone and iPod Touch, but the agency is exploring versions for use on other devices, including Blackberry and Android smart phones.

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