The container economy

by Brett Murphy

How companies keep billions from their employees

The Department of Labor investigates thousands of companies every year, based on its own suspicions or after an employee files a complaint. The DOL compiled every case it has opened in each of 11 "super sectors" since 2007 — some findings go back decades. Most cases involve Fair Labor Standards Act violations, like skirting minimum wage laws or unpaid overtime. In the past seven years, there have been almost 200,000 cases opened across 1,400 different industries, from commercial banking to drive-in movie theaters.

The DOL has assessed more than $2.4 billion (adjusted) in total back wages all over the country. But collecting on these debts often takes years, labor lawyers say, because those who engage in wage theft typically don't have the means to pay what's owed. Much of the country's back wage debt is comprised of small failing companies. But some large corporations have been found responsible for hefty wage claims along their lower echelons. Networks of subcontractors, often but not always, protect those on top.

Those 11 super sectors are divided into 56 different industries. As you can see, some sectors are more fractured than others. Experts say the industries with more laborers and less managers -- like construction, retail and food services -- lend themselves to worse conditions. Last year in California alone, more than 36,000 workers filed wage claims. And the DOL usually awards a decision in their favor.

When and where are the heaviest violations?

Even though the first cases opened in 2007, the DOL often found violations that occurred earlier. These heat maps show the industry categories and years with larger back wage awards as more intense colors. Values are adjusted for inflation. As the industry definition gets narrower with each chart, the back wage debt concentrates on just a few types of businesses.

Recently the DOL has come down more heavily on industries with many workers and little oversight: construction, retail and food services. These are the 15 industries (of 56) with the most accumulated back wages assessed against them. The darkest shaded bricks represent the heaviest sums.

The DOL often focuses investigations on a small number of large corporations. Its $48-million probe into Wal-Mart ended in 2007, hence the dark color in Department Stores that year. But most other cases are relatively small, spread out over 1,400 types of businesses. These are the top 15.