Data shows few employees getting help through NC Dept. of Labor complaints

New law passed after deadly Hamlet fire

RALEIGH, NC (WBTV) - Less than ten percent of employees who file a complaint against their employer with the North Carolina Department of Labor have their cases upheld, according to data provided by the department and a limited review of agency records.

The Retaliatory Employment Discrimination Act, known as REDA, makes the NCDOL the sole state agency responsible for enforcing a number of state employment laws.

REDA was passed in the wake of a deadly fire at the Imperial Foods plant in Hamlet, NC in 1991. This month marked the 25th anniversary of the fire that killed 25 and left another 54 injured.

Investigators blamed the deaths on a majority of the plant's doors being locked. Regulators later cited the company for a number of employment law violations and the company's owner was convicted of a crime and spent time in jail.

Following the fire, the North Carolina General Assembly passed REDA to consolidate oversight of various employment-related laws.

A review of agency records by the Charlotte Observer in 2008 found the NCDOL rarely took action that gave an employee their job back.

In fact, the Observer found employees got their job back through REDA complaints less than one percent of the time and the department had not taken a company to court on behalf of an employee in seven years.

We wanted to see if the department had begun ruling in favor of employees in a greater percent of cases in the years following the Observer's investigation.

A spokeswoman for the department refused to provide a complete set of REDA case files for review by On Your Side Investigates but did provide data for fiscal years 2012-2016.

The numbers show that the department finds in favor of employees less than ten percent of the time.

For instance, of the 354 REDA complaints that were filed in FY2016 (July 1, 2015 through June 30, 2016) only 33, or 6.5% were found to have merit.

That same year, 146 complaints, or 41.2% of cases, were either denied or kept open so long employees were allowed to request they be given the right to take their case to court on their own.

Ross Sohm, a Charlotte attorney who regularly files REDA complaints on behalf of clients, said employees must file a complaint with the NCDOL before going to court.

"There is a requirement to file with this agency to actually pursue in litigation but, other than that, it's just a hurdle and it honestly is going to be a waste of most people's time," Sohm said.

Sohm said that, often times, complaints are denied within a week's time. Other times, he said, a case can be held open for four to six months; when that happens an employee can request the department issue a 'right to sue' letter that allows them to take their case to court themselves.

Employees are generally issued a 'right to sue' letter even if their claim is denied. If the department fines a complaint has merit, the law allows them to take an employer to court but that rarely happens.

"I've never heard of it," Sohm said. "I don't think it's ever happened since I became an attorney (in 2009)."

Phil Hooper, Deputy Commissioner of Labor for Standards and Inspections, was similarly unsure when the last time the department had gone to court on behalf of an employee.

"I don't have that information," Hooper said when On Your Side Investigates asked when the last time NCDOL went to court on behalf of an employee.

Hooper said he was unaware of criticism the criticism of his office regarding handling of REDA complaints. He pointed to the fact that more than a quarter of complaints were settled by a third-party as a sign of success.

"The best resolution is, again, to keep both the employee happy with the results and the employer agree to the same results," he said.

Hooper said many cases filed with his office are difficult to adjudicate.

"These cases are not black and white," he said. "What happens is the employee may have filed a complaint against an unsafe condition. We've got to connect all the dots and at the same time the employee may have had an attendance problem, or maybe they weren't performing their job or their sales numbers weren't up to where they needed to be."

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