RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - With unemployment still near 7% in Virginia, those who have jobs may consider themselves lucky. But are employers taking advantage of the situation by cutting corners and pay illegally?
Have you ever complained about something at work, only to be told "You're lucky you have a job?" An attorney we spoke to says she's been hearing that kind of talk a lot these days, workers are afraid to speak up for their rights, for fear of losing their jobs.
Claude Hunter wasn't afraid to speak up.
"I was like, this can't be right," said Hunter.
Claude worked as a driver for a Richmond medical transport company, sometimes logging 70 hours a week taking elderly patients to appointments.
"I got my first pay check," said Claude. "It was, I would say short."
Claude's bosses explained that he was being paid salary, and was therefore not eligible for overtime pay. That did not sit well with Claude. So he called a law firm, and was put in touch with Joanna Suyes, a wage and hour attorney. She explained that his "overtime exempt" status was a violation of federal law under the fair labor standards act.
There's a salary basis- they have to make at least $455 a week, or you have to pay them time and a half for overtime. Claude's salary fell below that threshold. Suyes says when it comes to speaking out about pay issues, Claude is the exception.
"What we're seeing is a lot of people calling in and not wanting to give us their name or where they work, wanting to be very anonymous," said Suyes.
Although wage and hour problems are not always reported, the federal government says the problem is widespread. The most recent numbers come from 2008, when the Department of Labor's wage and hour division retrieved unpaid wages for nearly a quarter of a million workers.
But companies continue to face pressure to cut costs. That means the potential exists for those violations to increase.
That's why Joanna has stayed busy.
"Companies are required to pay their workers regardless of the climate," she said. "Regardless of whether it's a bad economy or a good economy, they're required to pay their workers according to the law."
Claude and Joanna won their case against Claude's former employer. But he still faces an uphill battle when it comes to actually collecting the wages he is owed. But, he says, he's still glad he took a stand.
"You can't let people take advantage of you," he said. "You gotta have some type of say-so in your own life."
There are ways to get help if you have questions about your pay. You can call an attorney like Claude did, or you can contact the U.S. Department of Labor. They have a wage and hour office in Richmond. They also offer help for employers who have questions about compliance with wage and hour laws.
You can learn more about the Department of Labor's services on their web site.