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Labor Department starts Bridge to Justice program

Tens of thousands of employees each year take their concerns about their bosses to the Department of Labor — more grievances than the agency can handle.

Now there’s backup help. The Labor Department has established a first-of-its-kind program with the American Bar Association. The agency would put workers whose complaints it won’t take up in touch with private employment lawyers. The Bridge to Justice program focuses on potential violations of overtime, minimum wage and family medical leave laws.

Catherine Ruckelshaus, legal co-director of the National Employment Law Project that advocates for low-wage workers, says her group has long sought such a program, pointing to a “dearth of enforcement” of basic wage and hour laws.

Workers filed more than 40,000 complaints nationally in the last fiscal year with the Labor Department’s wage and hour division. Even after adding a few hundred investigators in the past two years, the division says it doesn’t have the resources to address each complaint and focuses instead on cases that will have the “biggest impact on the greatest number of workers.”

The division doesn’t act on about one in 10 complaints and advises those workers that they have a right to sue on their own. But exercising that right or finding an experienced employment lawyer to help is often a significant hurdle, federal officials acknowledge.

That’s where the Bridge to Justice program comes in. Workers can get a toll-free number that directs them to an ABA-approved lawyer referral service in their area.

When employees call the referral number, they will be asked to provide their ZIP code to get contact information for local services. Fees for lawyers vary, and employees should discuss that upfront with the attorney.

The wage and hour division also has made it easier for workers to get documents related to the investigation of their complaint, which can help build their case. Previously, they had to file a time-consuming Freedom of Information Act request to get the documents.

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