Politics & Government

With just one missed check, workers’ lives can be derailed

When Ann Loyd wasn’t paid for work she did, she contacted the Labor Department, but no action was taken on her behalf.
When Ann Loyd wasn’t paid for work she did, she contacted the Labor Department, but no action was taken on her behalf. cliddy@newsobserver.com

To Ann Loyd, it felt like old-fashioned theft.

Her boss hadn’t paid her for weeks spent tending to troubled women at Your New Beginning, a state-licensed group home in Raeford. When her employer did pay, her check was late and short on hours, state records show.

When an investigator for the state Department of Labor closed the case against Loyd’s employer, Akilia Slocumb, without collecting all the money she was owed, Loyd’s despair grew deeper. Loyd felt as if she didn’t matter.

“I used to feel like Raleigh was the big dogs. You know, you contact Raleigh and they are going to be on it,” said Loyd, 46, who lives with her teenage daughter in Raeford, 80 miles southwest of Raleigh. “I was very disappointed. Disappointed in the whole system. Disappointed that this woman is still riding around like she’s invincible, and I’m suffering.”

While Loyd felt alone, she was one of many. The Labor Department routinely fails to help the workers who turn to it to collect the money they earned.

The News & Observer analyzed more than 1,000 cases from fiscal year 2014 in which labor investigators found that employers owed their workers money. All told, investigators failed to collect $1 million for 617 workers that year, nearly half of what was owed.

They advised the workers to go to court on their own if they wanted to collect the lost wages, a difficult task for hourly workers with little money for a legal fight. The employers were not punished.

They are already earning poverty wages. If they don’t get paid, (they) forgo having a meal or going to the doctor. Or they end up seeking public assistance.

Haeyoung Yoon, worker advocate for the National Employment Law Project in New York

Many workers were like Loyd, a low-wage earner barely supporting herself when the paychecks came on time. Earning $8.25 an hour, she needed every cent to pay rent and buy groceries for herself and her daughter. When the checks were disrupted, her life spun out of control.

“They are already earning poverty wages,” said Haeyoung Yoon, a worker advocate for the National Employment Law Project in New York, which works to support low-wage workers. “If they don’t get paid, (they) forgo having a meal or going to the doctor. Or they end up seeking public assistance. It’s pretty bleak for these workers and their communities.”

The N&O interviewed nearly 20 workers left short of pay after the Labor Department failed to collect wages their bosses owed.

They lost cars and apartments. The lucky leaned on friends and family, seeking shelter with relatives and paying bills with borrowed money.

Others had to turn to public assistance such as food stamps or Medicaid. Some still carry debt from unpaid bills that stacked up when the pay stopped. For nearly all, the setback still stalks them in the form of credit ruined during the period they struggled to pay bills.

“It took me two years to get back on my feet,” said Lorraine McNeill, 37, of Erwin, who lost $810 of pay after the Labor Department closed the case against Your New Beginning. “My credit got messed up bad.”

While the workers struggled, their former bosses went unscathed. They faced no criminal charges.

The employers didn’t lose business licenses or the right to contract with the state. No one from the state staked a claim on their assets by securing a lien for the wages.

State Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry has acknowledged that her Wage and Hour Bureau hasn’t done enough. She blamed that on management problems and has hired a new chief for the bureau, who says she’s working to get cases ready for litigation if it’s necessary.

Like the financial fallout the workers faced, the emotional impact has lingered, too. Some blame themselves for being duped. Others wonder if they chose the wrong occupation: caring for those who can’t care for themselves.

“I feel that she did think it would be easy to take advantage of us,” said Amanda Fair, one of Loyd’s co-workers owed $825 for roughly a month of work at Your New Beginning, “that we wouldn’t fight back.”

Life on the edge

Loyd, who has a high school diploma, always knew the distance between surviving and freefall was thin. As a single mom of two children, she was accustomed to fending for herself.

Since early 2013, Loyd has struggled. She traces the start of her slide to that first missed paycheck from Your New Beginning, the group home where she cooked and cleaned and watched over women with profound impairments. Frustrated about her pay, she quit the group home on March 6, 2013; she said she was owed about $1,000 after taxes.

As the weeks passed, Loyd tried to track Slocumb down at her office. Her questions were met with excuses from Slocumb, Loyd said. A month after she left, she received a check for about $400.

Nearly two months after Loyd left, Slocumb whittled down the debt a bit more, sending another check for $240 but still leaving Loyd about $250 short – a significant amount of money for her. At her old wage of $8.25 an hour, working full time she would have made about $17,000 a year.

The labor investigator validated the claim of Loyd and three other workers. She closed the case in late June and told them they could pursue the balance in small claims court. But Loyd couldn’t handle the filing fee of nearly $100, plus sheriff’s service fees. No one told her she could ask that part of the fee be temporarily waived since she was indigent.

The unpaid wages contributed to a downward spiral from which Loyd could not escape.

She had surgery to remove several tumors, and everything ground to a halt. Your New Beginning offered her no health insurance or sick pay. Luckily, the tumors were benign, and the hospital offered her charity care.

Loyd owed rent at her apartment in Raeford, the nicest she had ever been able to afford. Eventually her landlord evicted her and obtained a judgment for the rest of the money she owed. Her car was repossessed. She and her daughter, Shamiaya, juggled grocery and utility bills with Shamiaya’s part-time job at Bojangles’.

When they moved in with an ailing aunt last year, Loyd tried not to cry.

She finally confided in her daughter: “I don’t know what I’m going to do. I have no clue what I’m going to do.”

On their own

The Department of Labor fined Akilia Slocumb $140 for keeping incomplete employment records. She paid that fine, none of which went to the workers. She hasn’t paid the $4,156 she owes to the first four workers who filed complaints and to Angerla Young, who complained later.

Akilia Slocumb was uncooperative during the state labor investigation.

When an investigator visited her office in June 2013 and found the company’s employment records in disarray, the investigator noted Slocumb “was not happy with my visit to review records.” Slocumb refused to pay the $2,833 in wages investigators calculated she owed to four workers.

A few days after the visit, the investigator closed the file. She sent letters to Loyd and other employees saying they were on their own and invited them to fight for the wages in small claims court.

Not four months later, Angerla Young, another of Slocumb’s workers, alerted the Labor Department about not getting paid $1,323 in parts of June and July. As the investigator looked into the matter, Slocumb failed to return calls or provide information. The Labor Department closed the investigation into Slocumb the same way it had earlier that year: a letter telling the worker she was on her own.

Young remembers the sting of that letter. “When they didn’t help me, I felt like I was lost,” she said.

The Department of Labor fined Slocumb $140 for keeping incomplete employment records. She paid that fine, none of which went to the workers. She hasn’t paid the $4,156 she owes to the first four workers who filed complaints and to Young, who complained later.

Other agencies, such as the North Carolina Industrial Commission, use fines to urge businesses to settle debts to workers. It often lowers the fine for every dollar the employer pays to the worker. For federal contracts, such as construction of federally backed projects, the U.S. Department of Labor can initiate a hold on the disbursements until workers are paid or require the general contractor to pay the wages.

A federal Department of Labor spokesman said his agency has had some success working with agencies that disburse Medicaid funds to recoup money for workers who have not been paid. Many of the North Carolina companies that failed to pay wages to workers subsist on Medicaid funding.

In North Carolina, nothing was done to intercept the government’s payments to Slocumb and direct the money to workers.

There is no civil penalty for failing to pay workers. Companies that fail to pay wages can be fined for record-keeping violations; in 2014, fewer than 20 percent of those were fined, and of those, 20 percent didn’t pay.

In July, during a brief interview in one of her former group homes in Raeford, Slocumb said she was unaware of any prior Labor Department investigation. She said that she owed no workers any money.

When pressed, Slocumb said there may have been one worker who had a previous complaint with the Labor Department.

“You have your workers who have their complaints,” Slocumb said. “When you have disgruntled employees, that’s what they do.”

The N&O offered to show Slocumb a copy of the findings of the Labor Department’s investigation. She declined.

Slocumb said she closed her business last year. State records, though, show she applied for a renewal of her license to operate on Dec. 30, 2014.

From 2006 to 2013, Slocumb’s company received $340,000 in government money to assist patients who qualified for Medicaid, the federal-state program that helps pay for health care for poor children, some adults, and the blind and disabled.

Swallowing her pride

Loyd has tried to move on. Her new job as a health aide at a Raeford nursing home helps her keep pace with most of her bills, but the debt she racked up while without pay from the group home still plagues her.

Over the winter as her aunt’s oil heating tank sat empty, Loyd had to swallow her pride and ask for some charity from the county social services agency.

Now and again, Loyd sees Slocumb driving through town in her 2006 Range Rover SUV, one of only 19 registered with the state Division of Motor Vehicles in Hoke County. She also sees Slocumb’s husband, Chris, washing his 2005 BMW 7 series sedan.

“It was almost like mocking me,” Loyd said. “It’s like, ‘You know, you still owe me.’ It didn’t matter to her.”

Mostly, Loyd is tired. She works 40 hours a week at the nursing home and picks up extra shifts when she can. She’s also taking classes three nights a week at Sandhills Community College, trying to become a pharmacy technician, which could provide a pay bump.

And she frets over Shamiaya. She graduated from high school this spring. Loyd is desperate to get her daughter to and through college.

She never wants her daughter to feel what she has: forgotten and disposable.

Database editor David Raynor contributed.

The series

Sunday: No action ‘on your behalf’

Monday: Public funds, private cheating

Tuesday: Commissioner aims to help business

Wednesday: Workers ruined by loss of pay

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