State Wage, Overtime Enforcement Uneven, Study Finds

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NEW YORK--Enforcement of minimum wage and overtime laws by the states varies widely and may suffer from budget constraints just as the numbers of low-wage workers are rising, according to a study by a Columbia Law School program.

The study by the law school's National Attorneys General Program, completed in early April and released May 2, noted that 45 states have minimum wage laws, including 16 setting a rate higher than the federal minimum, and 32 have overtime laws.

But “the mere existence” of state wage and hour laws does not mean their standards will be met, the study said, pointing to “pervasive violation” of both federal and state laws.

“Without meaningful enforcement by state regulators, some employers will simply disregard their legal obligations, putting the majority who abide by the law at a significant competitive disadvantage,” the report said. “This creates a regulatory race to the bottom by states as they seek to compete to attract businesses.”

Among 37 states and the District of Columbia responding to a survey questionnaire, all but a few saw a large increase in the number of low-wage workers in 2009, while wage and hour enforcement resources were frozen or cut in most states, the report found.

“If it is true that more low-wage workers will generate more wage and hour violations, then state wage and hour regulators are being stretched ever thinner in their efforts to enforce the law,” it said.

Only about one-third of the states have discrete wage and hour enforcement units, with most assigning primary enforcement responsibility to a labor agency with additional areas to cover, the report found.

Some States Only Refer Complaints

In Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi, survey respondents reported that the state has no enforcement agency but refers complaints to federal regulators or private attorneys, the study said.

Among the other states, the state attorney general's office was most frequently cited as providing substantive support to wage and hour enforcement, the study found. In Massachusetts and New York, offices of the attorney general have their own investigative and enforcement authority, it said.

Individual claims by employees were the most common method of detecting wage and hour violations, with only Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, and New York making significant use of other procedures, the study found. Several states said they lacked the budget and staff to do more than handle individual complaints, it said.

By John Herzfeld

Text of the report can be accessed at, and the executive summary is at