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Florida Department of Children and Families under federal scrutiny over wages, hours

Long hounded by tales of underpaid and overworked employees, the Florida Department of Children and Families is once again under investigation for denying fair wages to its workers, the U.S. Labor Department confirmed Thursday.

The investigation comes as the department prepares to defend itself against a pair of new lawsuits that allege its employees are often pressured to work long hours with no hope of overtime compensation.

It is unclear if the lawsuits are related to the federal investigation. Labor Department officials declined to comment on the ongoing case.

Critics say both the lawsuits and the federal investigation raise new questions about whether the agency's ongoing calls for reform have made any difference in a culture where caseworkers claim they are routinely assigned excessive caseloads.

"You are going to have people taking shortcuts when it comes to the children, the elderly and the families," said Gerard Glynn, a law professor at Barry University in Orlando whose work focuses on Florida family law. "There are not enough hours in the day and there are not enough people to meet the obligation."

DCF Secretary George Sheldon said his department is adequately funded by the state Legislature, but conceded that his employees have been overwhelmed by one crisis after another, from the recession to helping relocate victims of the earthquake in Haiti earlier this year.

"I want to personally know if anyone feels like they are being directed not to report their hours because I take that very seriously," Sheldon said. "I haven't seen anything in any way, or at least the feedback I've gotten, that there is a systemic problem."

But just days after the most recent lawsuit was filed, Sheldon sent out a memorandum this week reminding workers to take a lunch break.

Sheldon said his letter had nothing to do with the investigation. Rather, he was responding to a Tampa supervisor who recently banned employees from eating lunch at their desks.

In April, four Daytona Beach DCF employees filed a lawsuit seeking unpaid overtime wages.

A similar lawsuit followed on June 8. Filed by Adrian Rayner, a former child abuse investigator in Lake County, the lawsuit claims she was told she could not report more than 40 hours per week on her time sheet, regardless of the time she worked. Rayner said she regularly worked 20 hours a week overtime from November 2008 through July 2009.

In 2007, federal investigators found the DCF had illegally denied overtime to 126 Palm Beach County caseworkers. The state agreed to pay $166,517 in back wages.

Employees have filed at least a half dozen suits against the DCF since 1996 citing federal Fair Labor Standards Act violations.

Times staff researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.

Florida Department of Children and Families under federal scrutiny over wages, hours 06/17/10 [Last modified: Friday, June 18, 2010 9:08am]
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