- The Washington Times - Friday, June 7, 2002

One case in particular sticks out in the mind of Chavara Bartley, who for the last nine years has been chasing down deadbeat employers for the D.C. Wage-Hour Office.

A restaurant-deli owner was hiring Hispanic workers who spoke little or no English, telling them he would pay slightly more than minimum wage and putting them to work preparing food and cleaning up.

After several weeks of excuses but no paychecks, the workers would leave. The deli owner then would hire someone else, but never pay them and never keep records of their employment.

One of the workers summoned the nerve to complain to the D.C. Wage-Hour Office. After Mrs. Bartley investigated and criminal prosecution was threatened, the employer paid the back wages.

Mrs. Bartley describes problems with exploitation of workers as "pervasive," often by employers who know what they are doing is wrong.

"It's terrible," she says. "If you're making $4 per hour, how do you live?"

Finding the payroll errors that employers overlook or hide consumes most of Mrs. Bartley's days.

"I got a ton of different cases here," she says with a look of frustration.

In her office overlooking the intersection of Florida and New York avenues, financial records are stacked on her desk. Others are crammed inside boxes on the floor and the window ledge. The computer screen on her desk is framed by yellow reminder notes with names and phone numbers.

"These are all the people I have to keep track of," she says as she pulls a note off one side of her computer and pastes it to the top.

When she is not poring through records, she writes letters to employers to tell them they are being investigated and to request records. Just as often, she writes letters to employees, telling them their claims are unfounded.

Despite her job's bureaucratic style, she plans to stay. "It's a very fulfilling process," she says. "You see the fruits of your labor."

The long and recurring list of employers who fail to pay workers is leading to what the seven-member staff in the D.C. Wage-Hour Office at 77 P St. NE says is one of the biggest changes and the biggest controversies in the office's 94-year history of making employers pay up.

Attorneys for the D.C. Department of Employment Services the umbrella organization for the D.C. Wage-Hour Office are drafting new rules that would fine employers up to $300 for each paycheck they fail to pay their employees and up to $10,000 for paying less than minimum wage or overtime. A vote on the rules by the D.C. City Council is expected in September or October. An outcry from employers is expected immediately afterward.

"We're ready for it," Mrs. Bartley says. "It's long overdue."

Her unwillingness to flinch in the face of an angry employer might seem out of character for this unassuming 34-year-old Howard University Spanish major. But she is gaining a reputation in Washington's Hispanic community as a champion of exploited workers.

Although she is not Hispanic, Mrs. Bartley is the only bilingual staff member at the D.C. Wage-Hour Office. As a result, she has become the liaison for all the cases involving Latin-American workers with limited English. Last month, the Spanish-language newspaper El Pregonero featured her in an interview explaining wage and hour laws in the District.

For all the employers that try to avoid paying employees, an equal number resolve the problem willingly when their oversight is pointed out, Mrs. Bartley says.

One case she mentioned involved a major accounting firm in the District. The firm's administrative assistants were incorrectly classified as salaried employees and denied overtime pay.

After one of the employees filed a complaint, Mrs. Bartley wrote a letter of inquiry to the firm, which responded by conducting its own investigation. Before further proceedings were threatened, the firm paid the 37 administrative assistants $120,000 in back wages and reclassified them as hourly employees.

Uncooperative employers do not get off so easily. The D.C. Corporation Counsel is authorized to file civil or criminal charges against employers who refuse to pay after a D.C. Wage-Hour Office investigation finds employees are due back wages. The office's five compliance specialists average collections of $600,000 to $700,000 per year for employees. An average claim runs more than $500 for each of about 1,200 workers.

When she is not at work, Mrs. Bartley divides her time among her husband and 14-month-old daughter, their home in Bowie and her hobby of photography.

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