The Florida Department of Children and Families has agreed to pay $1.8 million in gross back wages to 432 current and former child protective investigators after the U.S. Labor Department found it violated federal labor law.
The settlement comes about three years after the Labor Department investigated DCF and concluded its child protective investigators in Miami and Jacksonville regional offices had worked unrecorded and unpaid overtime hours.
State Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, who chairs the Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee, welcomed news of the payment.
“If you’re going to work overtime and put in those extra hours to make sure those kids are safe and the system is working, you should be paid for it,” she said.
According to Labor Department’s investigation, the DCF managers should have known the employees worked overtime investigating cases. Nonetheless, federal auditors found, managers told employees that failing to finish their work in a 40-hour week meant they had failed to meet performance standards unless their overtime was pre-approved.
The auditors found that such approvals were rare and that managers told employees that not recording all their hours could lead to discipline.
The settlement agreement signed by DCF Assistant Secretary of Administration Scott Stewart on Tuesday stipulates that “DCF does not admit to any violation of the [Fair Labor Standards Act] or other wrongdoing.”
Neither Stewart nor interim DCF secretary Mike Carroll responded to a request for comment Thursday.
Before reaching the settlement, DCF entered into a separate agreement with the Labor Department in 2012, agreeing to create a “labor standards ombudsman” and a hotline for employees to anonymously report labor violations.
The settlement comes at a time of major change at DCF.
In June Gov. Rick Scott signed a new law that, among other changes, makes the safety of a child a priority rather than the rights of the parent. The law was in response to a Miami Herald investigation, “Innocents Lost.” The series detailed the deaths of 477 children who reporters found had prior contact with the state.
The law allows for the hire of 270 new child protective investigators. The additional investigators should lighten the caseloads of overburdened employees, said Christina Spudeas, executive director of Florida’s Children First, a child welfare watchdog and advocacy group.
The unpaid overtime, Spudeas said, along with large caseloads, low compensation, improper supervision are among factors that “contributed to bad judgment and bad calls that did lead to children’s deaths.”
“Having a person to make critical judgment calls that affects the safety of children – we want them to be alert,” she said. “We want them to have the time to make better decisions.”
The Labor Department initially estimated DCF owed just under $20 million, a figure based on estimates that the agency owed two years of back wages to employees beyond the regional offices involved in the settlement. After negotiations, the money will go to employees in DCF’s Jacksonville and Miami regional offices for unpaid earnings from April to December 2010, according to the Labor Department.
The settlement agreement says the individual sums to be paid out range from $275 to as much as $5,512 per employee. A DCF spokeswoman says the agency still employs 171 of the employees included in the settlement.
It wasn’t the first Labor Department investigation faced by DCF that concluded it had violated laws by causing employees to work unrecorded overtime.
In a previous investigation, the Labor Department found employees were working off the clock at DCF’s Palm Beach County office between 2004 and 2005.
The state owed $1.3 million to workers, the Labor Department said at the time. After negotiations, DCF settled the case and paid a total of $166,500 to 126 workers.