“They may not even be aware an investigation even happened,” Allen said.
Nationwide, the DOL has more than $161 million currently sitting unclaimed, money that is owed to more than 222,000 workers, she said.
The money comes to the DOL only after its Wage and Hour Division has investigated a complaint — which could come from a worker, a competitor or pretty much anyone — and concluded that an employer did not pay what it was legally obligated to pay. Then, the DOL typically orders the employer to make good on what is owed and sometimes adds a penalty the employer also pays the workers.
The department has been at this awhile. Its authority to enforce the law and compel companies to pay wages owed comes from the Fair Labor Standards Act, a 1938 law passed as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.
If need be, the DOL can take the employer to court to compel payment.
But even when a business is cooperative, it cannot always find the workers who are owed money because they have often changed jobs or locations, Allen said.
“These are typically low-wage workers and if you haven’t been paid the right the first time, it can mean that you’ve had trouble keeping your phone service or staying in your house,” Allen said. “A lot of workers don’t even know they were not paid correctly.”
When the companies cannot locate the workers, the businesses are supposed to send the money still owed — in this case, $2.2 million due Georgia workers — to the DOL, which then tries to track down the recipients.
The most commonly underpaid workers tend to be those who work as caregivers, in construction or in restaurants, the DOL said. Immigrants — especially those without legal documentation — are also often victims, because some employers think they won’t dare complain.
However, the DOL says it enforces the law for pay regardless of legal status.
The department also does not pass along information about immigration status to other agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, Allen said. “If you feel you have not been paid correctly, those complaints are confidential.”
In the previous two fiscal years, the DOL’s Wage and Hour Division investigated 3,448 cases in Georgia, officials said. Those investigations resulted in more than $16 million in back wages and damages for more than 16,500 workers.
To see if they are owed money, workers can go to the Worker Owed Wages website at https://webapps.dol.gov/wow/ to input their names and the name of their employers.
If they are owed money, they should fill out a form on the website asking for their wages and the payment will be sent to them, officials said.
To get information, workers can also reach the Wage and Hour Division by calling 1-866-4-USWAGE.
Georgia ranks 14th among the states for money owed to workers. California has the most money unpaid and waiting to be claimed: $18.3 million, according to the Department of Labor.
The city in Georgia with the most unrecovered money is the state’s largest, Atlanta, where $351,697 is waiting to be claimed. Among other areas, workers in rural Colquitt County in southwest Georgia have the most unclaimed ($327,477), followed by workers in Gwinnett ($308,391).
Workers should not dawdle, officials said. The DOL only holds onto the money for a few years, then turns it over to the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
Unclaimed wages by state
California: $18.3 million
Pennsylvania: $16.5 million
Massachusetts: $10.5 million
New York: $10.1 million
Maryland: $6.6 million
Florida: $6.6 million
Arizona: $6.5 million
New Jersey: $5.9 million
Illinois: $5.1 million
Virginia: $4.4 million
Louisiana: $3.9 million
North Carolina: $2.5 million
Michigan: $2.3 million
Georgia: $2.2 million
Source: U.S. Department of Labor