Six Gulf Coast staffing agencies have agreed to pay thousands of workers nearly $3.5 million in back wages after U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division investigators found part of their wages were mislabeled as “per diem” payments as reimbursement for expenses they never incurred. Federal investigators found the agencies owed back wages to more than 3,000 workers – welders, electricians, pipe fitters, and other craftspeople – on maritime vessels and other oil and gas industry projects.
The investigations are part of an ongoing, multi-year initiative aimed at ending an illegal practice of employers labeling part of employee wages as per diem payments, often to avoid overtime, payroll taxes and other costs. Investigators are actively monitoring staffing agencies and other employers in the 1,600-mile Gulf Coast region for signs of this practice. “Workers don’t often complain about receiving per diem pay in place of regular wages because they believe they make more money being paid this way,” said Wage and Hour Division Administrator David Weil. “The truth is these workers are losing out. They are not getting all of the short and long-term benefits their employer owes them.”
Companies break the law when they label part of a worker’s regular wages as per diem expense reimbursement instead of wages to lower labor costs, avoid paying overtime, and avoid making payments toward federal and state taxes, workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance and Social Security payments. By attempting to reduce these obligations illegally with this scheme, these employers also gain an unfair advantage over their competitors.
Per diem pay is intended as a way for employers to reimburse workers for lodging, meals and other travel expenses incurred on behalf of their employer. Regular wages mislabeled as per diem cheat workers out of correct overtime wages. The payments may prevent workers from receiving full benefits in the event of a lay-off or workplace injury, and do not make full contributions toward a worker’s Social Security benefits. Employers that use temporary staffing agencies may be liable if investigations find workers employed jointly by the staffing agency, and the business that contracted them, received illegal per diem payments.
The FLSA requires that workers receive at least the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour for all hours worked, plus time and one-half their regular rates, including commissions, bonuses and incentive pay, for hours worked beyond 40 per week. Employers must maintain accurate time and payroll records. Under the FLSA, employers who violate the law are liable for employees’ back wages and an equal amount in liquidated damages.