Self Help

Self Help's back pay deadline backed up

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STERLING – Self Help Enterprises has sent a letter to disabled workers and their guardians informing them that 2 years’ worth of back pay owed them will be delayed.

The letter, dated Sept. 6, said Self Help negotiated an agreement with the Department of Labor that extends the deadline for payment of back wages to Nov. 11, 2018.

The nonprofit, which has a sheltered workshop, learned in April that it would lose its certification that allows the organization to pay disabled workers less than the $7.50 federal minimum hourly wage. The action was taken after an investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor determined that nearly 250 workers were exploited.

The investigation cited Self Help’s failure to conduct wage surveys in a timely fashion or time studies on all of the jobs done by disabled workers. The Department of Labor also reported that Self Help tried to obstruct its investigation by covering up relevant information, and at times, had unlawfully paid workers with gift cards.

In addition to paying back wages, Self Help was ordered to pay its workers at least minimum wage going forward.

Self Help filed a petition with the Department of Labor to review its decision on the substandard minimum wage decertification. The request was approved and assigned to a federal administrative law judge. Having a pending review enabled Self Help to get the back pay deadline extended.

“Please understand that the delay in payments is not because the agency is not prepared to issue the checks. We are in a legal process of appeal and must be patient with that legal process,” the letter signed by Executive Director Carla Haubrich said.

The Department of Labor refused to comment on the case, citing its ongoing status. Haubrich told consumers and their guardians that it would be unwise to depend on the money owed to them.

“I encourage you to be cautious in making plans to spend your back wages, as the circumstances could easily change again,” the letter said.

With the Department of Labor remaining silent, it was unclear how long the back pay conceivably could be delayed. While a new deadline has been set, the letter indicates that further delays are possible, perhaps until there is a ruling on the appeal.

The substandard wage certificate is given in accordance with Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act, with the intent of offering disabled workers more job opportunities to compensate for lost productivity.

The certificate sets up a formula allowing employers to determine a fair subminimum wage when physical or mental disabilities lower productivity. The wages are calculated as a percentage of the rate paid to experienced workers for similar jobs in the area.

Less than a week after the Department of Labor’s action against Self Help, a group of Democratic senators, including Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, sent a letter to Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta calling for an end to the Section 14(c) minimum wage exemptions.

In the meantime, the lawmakers asked Acosta’s department to provide a long list of requested information in an effort to improve oversight and prevent worker abuse.

Supporters of the substandard wage allowances argue that without it many disabled people wouldn’t be able to participate in the workforce.

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