District to Start Salary Protection; Rules Would Fine Employers Who Shortchange workers.(BUSINESS)

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Byline: Tom Ramstack, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The District's Department of Employment Services (DES) plans to start fining employers for failing to pay their employees as soon as this fall.

The fines are included in new regulations the DES is scheduled to submit to the City Council by July 1 for final review.

The regulations would allow fines against employers of up to $10,000 for failing to pay minimum wage or for refusing to pay overtime. They also could be fined up to $500 each time they are late with an employee's paycheck.

The new rules represent the first time that District employers could be fined for failing to pay employees.

"A lot of them seem to be low-income people who don't know there's any recourse," said DES director Gregg Irish. "It's been happening a lot with Latino workers."

The City Council approved the idea of fining deadbeat employers on April 3, 2001. D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams asked the Department of Employment Services to write the regulations.

"This legislation strengthens the city's laws so that workers' wages, especially those of low-wage employees, are protected," Mr. Williams told The Washington Times. "We look at employees as an asset to the city and we must treat them as such."

Support on the City Council for the fines grew during the shortage of workers that preceded the recession last year.

"A lot of workers were being exploited," Mr. Irish said. "We believe this is necessary because of that. We're talking about folks who are making minimum wage or a little more. They can't afford to have their checks delayed."

Last year, the D.C. Wage-Hour Office, a part of the DES, collected $559,368 in wages owed to 962 unpaid or underpaid employees. The average amount collected per claim was $581. The largest amount collected on a single claim in the past five years was $47,000.

This year, the office is heading toward total collections of about $600,000, Mr. Irish said.

So far, the idea of fining employers has met no significant opposition on the City Council, Mr. Irish said.

"I think it's been long overdue," said Josh Williams, president of the Metropolitan Washington Council, AFL-CIO. "There's just no excuse at all for someone who has provided their labor not to be compensated. …