Author Archives: Rod Rehm

Examining Workers’ Compensation’s ‘Grand Bargain’ and the Upcoming Election

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Here’s why people should support candidates who will protect workers’ rights. Understand that the ongoing workers’ compensation issues faced by state legislatures are not going away, so state legislatures are the front lines when it comes to making sure workers’ compensation systems are not diluted even more for injured workers and their loved ones.

Here’s some background. Over 100 years ago, workers’ compensation law was developed across the United States. Nebraska was actually one of the pioneering states, back when we were more progressive.  Workers’ compensation was viewed as the “Grand Bargain,” with several presumptions on how the system should work. A January 2014 LexisNexis Legal News Room Workers Compensation Law blog post addresses these presumptions. The blog itself is a respected neutral source on workers’ compensation issues.

While employers and insurance companies are chipping away at the protection workers’ compensation systems offer to injured workers and their loved ones through stalling tactics such as disputing if an injury happened at work or just straight out refusing coverage, those same interests are bending the ears of each state’s politicians to further erode the “Grand Bargain.”

Year in and year out, business and insurance groups cause a large number of bills to be filed that take away benefits from workers or make it more difficult for workers to obtain benefits or take control of their treatment for work injuries.

A recent study’s results, written in the same blog by the same author, reinforces what many injured workers, their loved ones, and their attorneys already know: essentially that workers in New Mexico (and I would argue that this is easily applicable to injured workers in many states) are no longer benefitting from the “Grand Bargain.”

The Grand Bargain Is Out of Equilibrium

“An important part of the ‘grand bargain’ between employers and employees within the workers’ compensation arena is the idea that just as the wear and tear on an employer’s machinery ought to be reflected in the price of the employer’s goods or services, so also should the wear and tear on the employer’s work force. A product’s price should reflect the total cost of production, including the costs associated with work-related injuries and illnesses. The Seabury study adds weight to the argument that the grand bargain is out of equilibrium, that workers’ compensation benefits do not adequately replace what a worker loses through his or her injury, that the physical and economic costs associated with work-related injuries and illnesses are not being fully addressed, and that the injured worker is at least partially subsidizing the overall cost of America’s goods and services with his or her lost income.”

The bottom line from this respected author is that workers’ compensation benefits should not be reduced, made more difficult to obtain, etc., when workers who get injured already make less money over a 10-year period of time than workers who aren’t injured.

So let’s elect legislators who will both restore and support the “Grand Bargain” for injured workers and their loved ones.

Struck-by Vehicle Incidents: OSHA’s Regional Emphasis Program for Region 7

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The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which is part of the U.S. Department of Labor, has announced via news release that it’s continuing its Regional Emphasis Program in Region 7 for struck-by vehicle incidents.

As was mentioned in a recent blog post, Region 7 includes the states of Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri.

Here is some additional information from the news release:

Over fiscal years 2008 through March 2013, “15 percent of all workplace fatalities investigated by the Kansas City Office … have involved vehicle accidents that struck employees in the workplace,” and there were 37 vehicle-related fatal incidents. The operator was the victim 43 percent of the time, while 57 percent of the time, the vehicle struck another worker. In addition, “seventy percent of the fatal incidents occurred at general industry work sites, while 24 percent happened in construction.”

Vehicles involved include “conventional vehicles, forklifts, semi-trucks and other moving industrial equipment” like cranes and yard trucks and cover the “construction, general and maritime industries.”

OSHA does inspections to follow up on complaints and referrals they get about the vehicles, and the news release also included a link that addresses struck-by hazards, which can be found here.

OSHA’s Region 7 Busy in September

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The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration is frequently referred to as OSHA.

OSHA’s Region 7 covers Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri, although Iowa operates its “own OSHA-approved job safety and health programs and cover state and local government workers as well as private sector workers.” In addition, the approved program “must have standards that are identical to, or at least as effective as, the federal OSHA standards,” according to an OSHA web page. The region has had a busy month releasing the results of investigations and resulting fines, so I thought it would be interesting to make this blog post a roundup of the results, which were gleaned from OSHA news releases, found at the web page for Region 7.

Although the proposed fines unfortunately do not reflect the severity of some of the injuries, OSHA’s job is not to punish businesses for injured workers, but for unsafe working conditions. That also means that fines are often decreased or eliminated when the hazard in the workplace is fixed. However, OSHA investigating a business based on an accident can often help an injured person’s workers’ compensation case.

  1. Date and location: Sept. 2, McCool Junction, Neb.

    Proposed fine: $84,000

    Number of citations for safety violations: one repeat, two serious to Farmers’ Cooperative at its McCool Junction fertilizer plant

    Details: A 73-year-old worker died from injuries after falling while loading a tanker truck on May 7, according to OSHA’s news release. Citations were related to lack of fall protection, lack of guard rails, and not providing railing on stairways.

  2. Date and location: Sept. 2, Kansas City, Mo.

    Damages paid to whistleblower: $12,000: $2,000 compensatory and $10,000 punitive

    Law violated: Federal Railroad Safety Act by Farmers’ Cooperative

    Details: A railroad conductor at the Murray Yard complex was disciplined in retaliation after a doctor’s appointment in November 2013 where the doctor told him to stay out of work for the rest of the day because of a personal illness, according to OSHA’s news release. Although the worker notified a supervisor about the doctor’s treatment plan, “the company then accused the employee of violating its attendance policy and subsequently disciplined the employee.” In addition to paying damages, the company must “remove disciplinary information from the employee’s personnel record and provide whistleblower rights information to its employees.”

  3. Date and location: Sept. 22, Omaha, Neb.

    Proposed fine: $133,900

    Number of citations for safety violations: three repeat and three serious, including confined space safety regulations, to Watco Companies of Pittsburg, Kan., a business that specializes in rail car repairs and has 30 employees in Omaha

    Details: A worker “reported suffering from respiratory inflammation after performing welding work inside a rail car in Omaha,” according to OSHA’s news release. An investigation in March was launched after the Nebraska Department of Labor Workers’ Compensation Division notified OSHA via a report of the illness. Repeat violations were “for failure to implement training, procedures and practices for safe entry into these spaces, including the company’s failure to evaluate for hazards, and to provide workers with communication devices or implement measures to prevent unauthorized entry.” Previous citations that made these repeat happened in Texas in 2013. “Serious violations were cited for failure to provide administrative and engineering controls to reduce damaging noise exposure, electrical hazards and lack of atmospheric controls in confined spaces.”

  4. Date and location: Sept. 25, Holdrege, Neb.

    Proposed fine: $14,000

    Number of citations for safety violations: two serious: “for failing to train workers in the recognition of unsafe conditions and to teach them how to access emergency medical services from a job site,” according to OSHA’s news release. The company is Van Kirk Sand and Gravel, operating as Van Kirk Brothers Contracting, which is based in Sutton, Neb.

    Details: One worker died and one worker was hurt after getting hit “by an excavator bucket while installing stormwater drainage in a trench … in Holdrege on July 17.” The inspection by OSHA “found that one of the employees sustained puncture wounds from the bucket after it disconnected from the excavator and rolled into the trench from a height of about 4 feet.” That worker died, and the other worker “suffered contusions and abrasions in the incident and has since returned to work.”

  5. Date and location: Sept. 25, Wichita, Kan.

    Damages paid to whistleblower: $261,787 for back wages and damages; and also reinstatement to their job and removing references to the disciplinary action from the employee’s record

    Law violated: Surface Transportation Assistance Act by Stericycle Inc. of Lake Forest, Ill., which specializes in biohazard waste disposal

    Details: “An investigation found the company wrongfully terminated a transportation supervisor at its Wichita terminal because the worker raised safety concerns after a driver was instructed to pull a trailer without a valid license plate,” according to the OSHA news release. When the employee was fired in September 2012, it was because of his status as a whistleblower. “It was determined that his protected activity was a contributing factor in the company’s decision to terminate his employment on Sept. 14, 2012, in direct violation of STAA.”

In addition to investigating unsafe working conditions, OSHA also works with nonprofits, businesses and industries to promote safety and accident prevention, which is what the remainder of the news releases in September are about.

  • On Sept. 3, OSHA announced that it is forming an alliance with the Heartland Workers Center of Omaha. This effort will “provide HWC staff, immigrant workers and others with education, guidance and access to training resources on protecting the health and safety of workers,” according to the OSHA news release. This includes promoting workers’ rights, how to make an OSHA complaint, what employers’ responsibilities are under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and providing Spanish-language safety and health training.
  • On Sept. 16, OSHA announced that it will work with Holder Construction Group to keep workers safe during the building of a data center called the Oasis project in Omaha, “which will include a chiller plant, administrative areas and supporting mechanical, electrical and plumbing rooms,” according to OSHA’s news release. The estimated 180 tradesmen who will construct the building, along with their employers, will learn “about hazards construction workers face daily on the job, including fall, electrical, caught-in and struck-by hazards.” In addition to other details, “all contractors and subcontractors on the project will be required to have specific written safety and health programs in place and attend meetings before major work takes place.”
  • Finally, on Sept. 25, OSHA announced in a news release that it was National Farm Safety and Health Week Sept. 21-27. Although the way workers’ compensation is handled when it comes to agriculture varies from state to state, ag is a dangerous industry. The news release includes both statistics and resources with many links for ag workers and their loved ones and also employers. The 2014 theme was “Safety Counts: Protecting What Matters,” according to the OSHA news release. “With a fatality rate of 22.2 for every 100,000 full-time workers, agriculture recorded the highest fatality rate of any industry sector,” in 2013. Issues include “awareness of confined space, farm equipment, grain handling … work-related lung diseases, heat exposure, noise-induced hearing loss, struck-by and fall hazards, skin diseases and certain cancers associated with chemical use and prolonged sun exposure.”

While it would be great if OSHA didn’t have to exist because workplaces were safe for employees, it is helpful to see both proactive steps taken to make workplaces safe and also businesses being held accountable when workers are injured because businesses or job sites are unsafe in Region 7.

A Special Warning About Over-the-Counter Pain Medications

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Today’s blog post was written by respected colleague Jay Causey from Causey Law Firm in Seattle.

As was written on this blog almost exactly a year ago, there continues to be concern about pain relievers and the trade-off between whether the potential problems with pain relievers outpace the potential relief of pain.

This time, instead of a ProPublica study, ConsumerReports.org has released a special report that tackles the dangers of painkillers.

Prescription painkillers are very much a concern, but people take for granted that acetaminophen (also known as Tylenol) is safe. Both Consumer Reports and ProPublica agree that there needs to be much more consistent labeling and care taken with this product. The recent CR report specifically talks about inconsistency in dosage of over-the-counter acetaminophen, especially because different products may label for different maximum amounts of the drug per day.

“And with acetaminophen, accidentally taking too much is all too easy. That’s because it’s the most common drug in the U.S., found as an ingredient in more than 600 OTC and prescription medications, including allergy aids, cough and cold remedies, fever reducers, pain relievers, and sleep aids,” according to the CR article.

The CR article also encourages people to be aware of the risks versus the potential pain relief of other over-the-counter painkillers, as there are apparently “serious risks to your heart and stomach when taken regularly, as millions of Americans do” for “drugs such as ibuprofen (Advil and generic), naproxen (Aleve and generic), and Celebrex,” as Celebrex is also soon to be released as a generic over-the-counter pain remedy.

Yes, it is important to find pain relief, especially for chronic pain, but please be safe while doing so.

The dangers of prescription pain meds get a fair amount of regular attention in the media.  A recent Consumer Reports (CR) article described a 300% rise in prescriptions of opiods – particularly those with hydrocodone –over the past decade, and provided a scary statistic:  17,000 people – 46 per day – die from overdose of these drugs.

What is less well known, and gets relatively scant attention, is that over-the-counter (OTC) painkillers containing acetaminophen (e.g. Tylenol) take 80,000 people yearly to the emergency room from overdose.  Acetaminophen, widely regarded as a “safe” drug is now the most common cause of liver failure.

The CR article points out the primary problem:  the directions for usage of these OTC drugs are ridiculously confusing and misleading.  Many of these only provide the caveat “take only as directed.”  What exactly does that mean?  Wildly different things according the cautions provided by differing drug manufacturers.  Some labels advise taking no more than 1000 milligrams of acetaminophen daily while others set the limits four times that high.  In some bizarre bureaucratic misstep, the FDA has lowered the maximum per-pill dose of the drug in prescription medications but has not done the same thing for OTCs. 

CR warns that overdosing on acetaminophen is easy as it is the most common drug in the U.S., found in more than 600 OTC and prescription medications.  There is little margin for error in exceeding the maximum recommended dose as only as small excess amount of the drug can be toxic to the liver.  A scary little graphic in the article shows how easy it is to do this.  A person might take six 500 milligram Extra Strength Tylenol (states maximum daily dose of 3000 milligrams) starting in the morning and through the day; then be on NyQuil for a cold and take eight 325 milligram pills (states maximum daily dose 2600 milligrams); and then do Walgreens Pain Reliever PM as a sleep aid (two 500 milligram pills at bedtime for a daily dose of 1000 milligrams).  At the end of a 24-hour period, that person would have ingested 6,600 milligrams of acetaminophen!!  Repeated doses of more than 4000 milligrams of the drug have been linked to liver, brain and kidney damage.  Chronically large doses have been correlated with the need for a liver transplant, or death, more than from one large overdose.

In 2011, the FDA limited the amount of acetaminophen in prescription pills to 325 milligrams per pill, but there has been no similar limitation imposed for OTCs, even though that market accounts for 80% of that drug taken yearly in the U.S.  For those regular users of acetaminophen, signs of potential liver damage to watch for are:  dark urine, pale stool, upper right abdominal pain, and a yellowish tint to the whites of the eyes.

 

Photo credit: Be.Futureproof / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Study: Work Comp Benefits Up; Employer Costs at Historic Low

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Respected colleague Thomas Domer of the Domer Law Firm in Milwaukee, recently wrote a post about a study released by the National Academy of Social Insurance (NASI).

The study, titled Workers’ Compensation: Benefits, Coverage, and Costs, 2012, is a treasure trove of information, as you can see if you click on the 86-page document. The 2012 report was just released this summer, I am guessing because it takes a bit to compile all this data.

Here’s what Mr. Domer said about the study (reprinted with permission):

“A new study released by the National Academy of Social Insurance (NASI) indicates worker’s compensation benefits rose by 1.3% to $61.9 billion in 2012 while employer costs rose by 6.9% to $83.2 billion. Even though total benefits and costs increased in 2012, worker’s compensation benefits and costs per $100 of covered payroll have been lower from 2007 to 2012 than at any time over the last 30 years. In 2012 benefits were 98 cents per $100 of covered payroll while employer costs were $1.32 per $100 of covered payroll. 

Over the last 30 years medical benefits have accounted for an increasing share of total benefits from 33% in 1984 to nearly 50% in 2012. Medical benefits accounted for almost 50% of the $61 billion in total benefits paid. In Wisconsin medical benefits exceed cash benefits, indicating that medical cost containment is a significant issue.

The Academy’s report Worker’s Compensation: Benefits Coverage and Costs 2012 is the 17th in an annual survey. The report provides the nation’s only comprehensive data on worker’s compensation benefits coverage and employer costs.”

Rehm, Bennett & Moore includes attorneys licensed in both Iowa and Nebraska, so I was most interested in these two states. As Mr. Domer indicated, cash wage replacement benefits and medical benefits are almost even nationwide, although cash benefits used to be a much greater cost to employers than medical benefits were. There is some difference in benefits between states, too, according to the study.

“The share of benefits paid for medical care varies tremendously across states. The variation not only reflects between-state differences in amounts paid for medical care, but also differences in the relative generosity of cash benefits across states,” according to the study.

Both Iowa and Nebraska are the same as what Mr. Domer reported with Wisconsin above: medical benefits very much outpaced cash benefits, and medical cost containment is definitely a concern. In 2012 in Iowa, over $362 million was paid in medical benefits, while almost $280 million was paid in cash benefits. In 2012 in Nebraska, over $192 million was paid in medical benefits, while over $120 million was paid in cash benefits.

There is a lot more information to digest in this document, so perhaps future blog posts will address some of the details. But I will end on an encouraging note from the 2012 study: “Workers’ compensation covered an estimated 127.9 million workers, (90 percent of the employed workforce) an increase of 1.6 percent from the number of workers covered in 2011 (125.8 million). … Between 2010 and 2012, all states experienced an increase in both covered wages and covered workers.”

That is definitely good news for workers, whether injured or not, and their loved ones.

Grain Handling Safety Concerns Occur All Year

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During the hustle and bustle of harvest beginning, some agricultural producers are in a hurry. Obviously there are a lot of different ways to focus a blog post during harvest time, but today I’d like to feature one that we wrote last year about grain handling safety. It is probably more in the minds of folks now because of harvest starting and the specialized machines being used now, not to mention the ramping up of workers needed to bring in the harvest. In fact, I know of many people who take days off of work to “go home” to help friends or family with the harvest, so there may also be people working who aren’t as familiar with day-to-day farming operations.

Regardless of whether one is a regular worker or a temporary volunteer, grain handling safety should be on workers’ and employers’ minds all year long. Very recently, OSHA held the owners of a grain elevator accountable for an incident that killed a 51-year-old man in South Dakota in March. Sadly, the gentleman was “engulfed in flowing grain in a railcar load-out elevator at Prairie Ag Partners,” according to the news release from OSHA. This resulted in proposed fines of $120,120 and the Lake Preston, S.D., business being put in OSHA’s Severe Violator Enforcement Program. Citations were “for one willful, two repeat and eight serious safety violations, many involving OSHA’s grain handling, permit-required confined space and fall protection safety regulations.”

I would note that OSHA sees incidents like this as such a problem that is has developed a National Emphasis Program for Grain Handling Facilities. What’s the most disturbing about this situation is that it was most likely preventable. Eric Brooks, OSHA’s area director in Bismarck, N.D., talked about the dangers of workers getting entangled when machines move grain and the worker is submerged. “If Prairie Ag Partners had followed basic safety standards, this tragic incident could have been prevented,” Brooks said in the news release.

That is a stark reality: following “basic safety standards.” So this harvest time, and whenever working with grain, make sure both businesses and workers know and follow the necessary safety standards. Have a successful and safe harvest season.

The grain harvest is still going strong in many portions of the Great Plains, but farmers and agricultural workers may be at that point where they just want to get it done and take shortcuts. However, taking shortcuts can often lead to bigger safety problems for these ag workers.

Although folks who are in the field and transporting grain to elevators are much more visible right now, safety issues with grain elevators go on throughout the year. So for people who live or work around grain elevators, which would be pretty much everyone in many small Nebraska and Iowa towns, please be aware of the dangers that grain handling can present, including explosions from grain dust, falls, or suffocation, among many of the other hazards out there.

One of the area television stations, 10-11 Central Nebraska, recently featured a special report on “Nebraska Grain Industry Safety” titled “OSHA, Grain Industry, and Families Work to End Injuries and Deaths.”

That effort got us thinking about compiling a list of links and previous blog posts that we have run in regards to both agriculture and also grain handling as resources.

Here are a couple of general links, and then below that are links to past blog posts from the firm that talk about either workers’ compensation for ag workers or grain-handling issues.

OSHA Safety and Health Topics: Grain Handling

Facebook Community: Grain Mill Accidents

OSHA Looks at Challenge of Nebraska Grain Elevators’ Safety

Learn & Live: Grain industry hazards lead to deaths, injuries each year; US Labor Department’s OSHA working with Nebraska grain associations to promote awareness of grain industry hazards

Employer Pleads Guilty for Grain Elevator Death

Temporary Employees Cannot Be Excluded From Workers’ Compensation

The 11 Most Life-Threatening Jobs on the Planet

What Nebraskans In Farming Industries Should Know About Workers’ Comp

Please continue to be safe this harvest and avoid dangerous shortcuts! Because all loved ones deserve to have their workers come home to them.

Happy #NTDAW: Thoughts for Truck Drivers, Consumers

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According to various industry sources, we’re in the middle of #NTDAW: National Truck Driver Appreciation Week.

A quick search of this hashtag on Twitter nets quite a few random thoughts, including free lunches from various companies for their drivers, a focus on wellness, fun facts about trucking, branded trinket giveaways, and general promotion of the industry.

Through both truckerlawyers.com and the firm, attorneys here do quite a bit of work with truck drivers, mainly workers’ compensation for company drivers. So I find it amusing, if not misguided and problematic, that many of these companies “celebrate” their drivers with one week a year of token gestures like a “free lunch” if you’re close enough to the terminal to take advantage of it. This is at the same time that these companies work hard to delay, deny and sometimes even ignore workers’ compensation claims of their injured drivers.

Every industry has its challenges, and trucking seems to have issues with driver retention, a perceived “shortage” of drivers, and just not paying drivers enough for the conditions that they live in on a daily basis. The way a company treats its employees says a lot, whether those employees are hurt or not. For example, truck drivers are protected under federal laws when they get hurt or become a whistleblower for refusing to drive an unsafe truck, as that decision easily affects others sharing the road. That being said, getting fired for reporting a workers’ compensation claim is obviously disruptive to drivers and their loved ones. In addition, especially since drivers are on the road so much, it is even more hurtful if they cannot take FMLA for a loved one’s medical emergency, even if the driver works for a larger company. Also, just a reminder, if a trucker gets hurt, it’s up to that driver to let the company know so that down the road, a person can get needed workers’ compensation benefits.

Over the years, I’ve found that many injured drivers just want to figure out how they can get well and get back to their lives and work. They are very dedicated and loyal to their profession, so it is important that injured drivers get the care they need in a timely manner without businesses or insurance companies putting up roadblocks to that care.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t actually say thank you to drivers who work very diligently, away from their loved ones, to deliver the goods that folks consume. I also appreciate the majority of drivers who work hard to be safe every day and watch out on the roads for others. It’s my observation that truck driving is more than an industry, it’s a lifestyle. Happy NTDAW, be safe, and take care.

Increase in Wage Theft Claims

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Today’s blog post was written by guest author Leonard Jernigan from The Jernigan Law Firm in North Carolina. Firm associate Brody Ockander also brought The New York Times story to my attention that Mr. Jernigan references. Here’s the link to the original story from the Times: More Workers Are Claiming ‘Wage Theft’. The firm’s blog has also included previous stories about wage theft, specifically Wage Theft Is Illegal And Immoral, written by Mr. Jernigan, and Wage Theft Another Assault on Workers’ Compensation, which was shared by Gelman on Workplace Injuries. As Mr. Jernigan uses North Carolina as an example, pretty much every state has a version of a Department of Labor that handles wage-theft issues. Here is a link to Nebraska’s form: Filing a Wage Complaint. In addition, many attorneys can be a resource for a person in this situation so please contact an experienced attorney, including those at our firm, if you have questions about a specific situation.

According to a recent article in The New York Times (Sept. 1, 2014), more workers are claiming wage theft by their employers. Worker advocates assert that violations of minimum wage and overtime laws, erasure of work hours and wrongful takings of employees’ tips are increasing in volume.

David Weil is the director of the federal Labor Department’s wage and hour division. Since 2010, Mr. Weil’s agency has uncovered almost $1 billion in illegally unpaid wages, with a disproportionate amount of immigrant victims. Weil believes the surge in wage theft is due to underlying changes in the national business structure. As large employers increase franchise operations as well as use of subcontractors and temp agencies, these companies deny any knowledge of wage violations.

A federal appeals court in California recently ruled that FedEx committed wage theft by labeling its drivers as independent contractors to avoid having to pay them overtime. New York’s attorney general, Eric T. Schneiderman, has recovered $17 million in wage claims over the past three years and in Nashville last February nine Doubletree hotel housekeepers were paid $12,000 in back wages owed by the hotel’s subcontractor. Wage theft is prevalent in North Carolina as well. According to the N.C Department of Labor 2012-13 Wage and Hour Bureau Annual Report, 4,244 complaints were investigated. Out of an estimated $2.4 million due, almost 73% of unpaid wages (over $1.79 million) were recovered for 2,168 workers. To file a wage dispute claim in North Carolina, contact the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Bureau at 919-807-2796 or 1-800-NC-LABOR.