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Thieves and scoundrels spotted among COVID-19 bail out recipients

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The Trump Administration’s reluctant disclosure of the names of more than 600,000 recipients of Paycheck Protection Program aid has shown that many of the loans went to firms that are well-connected and that otherwise don’t fit the image of mom-and-pop businesses we were led to believe would be the main beneficiaries.

There is another problem: many of the recipients previously engaged in behavior that amounts to paycheck endangerment. They failed to comply with minimum wage and/or overtime requirements and thus paid their workers less than what they were owed. In other words, they engaged in wage theft.

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Many of the recipients … failed to comply with minimum wage and/or overtime requirements and thus paid their workers less than what they were owed. In other words, they engaged in wage theft.

This comes from an analysis of data my colleagues and I have collected for the COVID Stimulus Watch and Violation Tracker databases. That includes the big PPP dataset and information on penalties imposed by the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division, one of the many agencies whose enforcement data can be found in Violation Tracker.

We are in the process of determining which PPP recipients are on the list of wage and hour violators, so we can highlight that in COVID Stimulus Watch along with other corporate accountability data.

88 Firms Spotted so Far

As a first step, I looked at the 4,800 companies identified as receiving the largest PPP loans–$5 million to $10 million. So far, I have found 88 of those recipients that paid wage theft penalties since 2010. Their penalties averaged about $100,000—which is roughly double the amount paid in back pay and fines in a typical wage and hour case.

The largest wage theft penalty I’ve found for a PPP recipient is the $1.9 million paid by Hutco Inc., a marine and shipyard staffing agency based in Louisiana. In announcing the penalty, the U.S. Department of Labor said the company had utilized improper pay and record-keeping practices, resulting in “systemic overtime violations” affecting more than 2,000 workers.

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PPP recipient National Food Corporation, a major egg producer, paid $435,000 in penalties for wage and hour violations at its operations in Washington State. The company also paid $650,000 to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Hearth Management, a PPP recipient that manages assisted living facilities in four states, paid a total of $383,000 in wage theft penalties at several locations. At a facility in Tennessee, the Labor Department reported that the company made deductions from timecards for meal breaks even when employees worked through those breaks, and it failed to include on-call and other non-discretionary supplements when calculating overtime rates.

Other PPP recipients with substantial wage theft penalties include the publisher O’Reilly Media, the electronics company Sierra Circuits, the restaurant chain Legal Sea Foods, and Erie County Medical Center in Buffalo, New York, which has also been penalized for overbilling Medicaid.  Apart from the PPP money, the Erie County Medical Center has received more than $75 million in grants and loans from other federal programs related to COVID relief.

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We will undoubtedly find many more companies with similar track records as we analyze the other hundreds of thousands of PPP recipients.

Not Illegal to Apply

It was not illegal for employers with a history of wage theft penalties to apply for and receive PPP assistance, yet the presence of these companies in the recipient list points to dual risks.

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First, there is the possibility that these firms will “cook the books” when it comes to reporting on their use of PPP funds and submitting their requests to have the loans forgiven. Second, these firms may feel that the current economic crisis will give them cover for returning to their old practices of wage theft. At a time of massive unemployment, these firms may assume that workers will not dare to complain about being shortchanged on their pay.

For these reasons, PPP employers with a history of wage theft penalties should be subject to additional scrutiny both by the Wage and Hour Division and the Small Business Administration. Paycheck protection must mean not only the preservation of jobs but also the defense of fair labor standards.

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