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Department of Labor

The U.S. Department of Labor building in Washington is pictured in November. Wyoming's Department of Workforce Services won't accept an unpaid wages claim unless an employee no longer works for the company. Workers are told they can take their case to court or appeal to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Imagine someone takes a bunch of your money. You head down to the police station and an officer there explains that he’ll help you get it back. But first, you’ll have to pay a fee that is even more costly than the amount of money that was stolen in the first place.

Such a scenario is, of course, absurd. But it’s similar to the choice that Wyoming workers now face if they seek help from the state in a wage dispute. Wyoming’s Department of Workforce Services will accept an unpaid wages claim – but only if an employee no longer works for the company. In other words, a worker who alleges his boss failed to pay him overtime has to leave his job – and the future earnings that go along with that job – in order for there to be any change that he recoups past earnings.

The state agency advises workers they can also take the matter to court, or appeal to the U.S. Department of Labor. But to succeed, workers who choose either of those avenues will almost certainly need to hire a lawyer, which is costly and often impractical.

Of course, the practical reality is that a worker in such a scenario – facing several bad and costly options – will likely keep his mouth shut, rather than pursue the matter. That’s why the system that now exists in Wyoming needs to change.

Officials at the Department of Workforce Services say they’re trying to protect workers. The state lacks anti-retaliation provisions, so there’s nothing to prevent an employer from firing an employee who files a claim for unpaid wages with the department.

Put more simply, the state tells workers “we can’t help you because we can’t protect you.”

If that’s the case, the solution isn’t to enact a system that disincentivizes workers from seeking money that is rightfully theirs. The solution is to change the system so that workers can pursue an unpaid wages complaint without fear of retaliation.

Lawmakers should pursue a bill that does just that. Workers pay taxes out of every paycheck, and they should be able to rely on the government for help in a fight over unpaid wages. Moreover, many companies that operate in Wyoming are based in other states. It would be disappointing for the state to maintain a system that allows out-of-state companies to cheat hardworking Wyomingites out of their wages.

That, of course, assumes the department’s assessment of the matter is correct. And there is some evidence to suggest that the agency is incorrectly interpreting Wyoming law. Michael Duff, a University of Wyoming law professor who specializes in labor law, says that’s exactly what’s happening.

Duff said Wyoming law allows workers who weren’t properly paid to seek up to $500 or two months in back wages, whichever is greater, from their current employer through the Department of Workforce Services

If that is indeed the case, it’s concerning that the Department of Workforce Services is advising workers that they can’t pursue a claim against their current employers. We believe the agency should seek out a legal determination from the Wyoming Attorney General’s office. If it turns out Duff is correct, the department must take steps to communicate to workers that help from the state is available.

But even if Duff is incorrect, department officials shouldn’t simply let the issue die. Instead, officials should work with lawmakers on a legislative fix. Because the state should be looking out for the people who work hard to earn a living here, not making it more difficult them for them to pursue justice when they’ve been wronged.

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