7,000 workers owed $5 million in wages

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(The Center Square) – The U.S. Department of Labor is holding $5 million in back pay for more than 7,000 Illinois workers whose employers have been found guilty of underpaying them.

People can use the website Workers Owed Wages to do a two-minute search to see if they are owed back wages.

“This is a program that we have initiated to try to get the money to the workers who have rightfully earned it. The program is both in English and in Spanish,” said Tom Gauza, district director of the wage and hour division of the U.S. Department of Labor in Chicago.

Type in the name of the company and the name of the worker. If the name comes up, the person should get a check in about six weeks, Gauza said.

When a company is cited for violating the wage law, it pays money into a fund designed to reimburse the affected workers. The WOW program is designed to get payments to workers who may have moved or changed jobs and have not been located.

Workers only have three years to claim their money. If the money is not claimed, the back wages are returned to the U.S. Treasury.

“We are trying to get the message out to people that they should take two minutes to check the website,” Gauza said.

All kinds of employers and businesses violate U.S. labor laws by underpaying workers, Gauza said.

“The jobs are all kinds of jobs,” he said. “They do seem to be disproportionately restaurant workers, healthcare workers, construction workers and agricultural workers.”

An example of a violation is a worker who clocks in and out for a 40-hour week but regularly works extra hours without getting paid overtime. Proviso Township High School in Forest Park was cited for not paying overtime to 46 security guards who regularly worked at after-school events.

Restaurants violate wage laws when they give a share of the servers’ tip pool to workers at the back of the house. No matter what a worker’s immigration status is, legal resident or illegal, ”they are required to be paid, irrespective of what their legal status is,” Gauza said.

The U.S. Department of Labor investigates suspect employers proactively.

“A substantial portion of our work is initiatives, where we go and look at certain industries because of a historic high rate of violation,” Gauza said.

They also investigate complaints made in strict confidence by employees who believe they are not receiving the wages they are owed. Even a nanny who works for an individual can make a completely confidential complaint by contacting the U.S. Department of Labor office at 866-487-3243 or 312-789-2950. Someone will take the information and evaluate it.

“We never reveal that there is or is not a complaint,” Gauza said.

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