The US DOJ’s “Access to Justice” Initiative

At a recent Middle Class Task Force event co-hosted by the Department of Justice’s Access to Justice initiative, Vice President Joe Biden announced a number of steps he says will “make sure all Americans — regardless of income or status — have access to the resources they need to pursue justice.” These steps represent the culmination of work between the Department of Justice (DOJ), the Department of Labor (DOL), the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and members of the advocacy community.

Easier worker access to lawyers

An initiative of particular interest to employers is a collaboration between the DOL and the American Bar Association (ABA) to help workers resolve wage and hour complaints. Starting next Monday, December 13, 2010, if the DOL can’t resolve a worker’s complaint because of limited capacity, the Department will furnish the complainant with a toll-free number which will connect them with a participating ABA-approved attorney referral provider in their area.

If the DOL has conducted an investigation, the worker will also be provided with information about the findings of that investigation, including any violations determined by the DOL and back wages owed. The worker can give this information to any attorney who takes their case. There’s also a process for complainants and their lawyers to obtain specific case information and documents when needed.

In other words, it sounds as if the DOL doesn’t have the manpower to follow through with the investigation, they’ll turn over any information they’ve discovered to the worker (and their attorney) to use in bringing their own legal action. This can make it a lot easier (and less expensive) to file a lawsuit.

Commenting on this initiative, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis said, “Today’s announced collaboration with the American Bar Association streamlines worker access to additional legal resources and builds on the Department of Labor’s continued efforts to ensure that employers comply with America’s labor laws.”

Resources for veterans

In another step, the VA and the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) have also launched a campaign to help make veterans more aware of resources available to them to help with employment issues, as well as foreclosure and consumer fraud.

Your next steps

In the past, some DOL investigations have slipped through the cracks due to insufficient staffing at the agency. However, the DOL has hired more than 250 investigators over the past two years, significantly reducing the number of cases dropped due to understaffing.

With some plaintiffs’ lawyers actively recruiting representatives for lucrative class action wage and hour lawsuits, the number of filings has skyrocketed over the past few years. Even when the employer is eventually found to have committed no violation, defending against such a lawsuit is costly: in dollars, in time and in attention drawn away from your business.

Given the current legal climate, it seems likely workers will become even more sensitive to perceived wage and hour violations. Employees will also find it even easier to access legal representation. It’s now more important than ever for employers to make sure they’re accurately recording all employee work time, and paying workers correctly.

A high-quality time and attendance system, properly configured and regularly used, is rapidly becoming a necessity for business survival.

You can read the full White House press release here.

Find out more about the DOJ’s Access to Justice initiative here.

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