More than 1,100 Utah workers are owed a total of $1.4 million in back wages that have been collected by the Department of Labor after former employers lost track of them. The money’s being held in the department’s Workers Owed Wages program, sometimes but not always after enforcement action against businesses that didn’t properly pay workers.

“We want to get it to the people that earned it,” Juan J. Rodriguez, deputy regional director in the Office of Public Affairs, Denver/Dallas, told Deseret News on Tuesday as the department launched a campaign to unite workers and their back wages.

In the last fiscal year, the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division recovered more than $212 million owed to nearly 163,000 workers nationwide. About $100 million of that has not been claimed.

Per the department, “The average back wage check recovered for a single employee in 2023 in the nation was over $1,100. In Utah the average owed to workers still is about $1,230 per worker. These workers owed wages applied their skill, put in the hours, but failed to receive their full and fair pay.”

Rodriguez said some of the money that hasn’t been claimed could have been earned as many as four, five or six years ago, because the process takes time. But once the Labor Department receives the money, a clock starts ticking down: Money not claimed in three years goes to the Treasury Department and into the general fund.

At that point, it cannot be claimed. So the agency created an online search tool where people can enter information to see if back wages are being held on their behalf.

Who’s missing back wages?

According to Ivan Pelaez, assistant district director for the Wage and Hour Division, low- or high-wage workers in almost any industry could be owed some money, so everyone should take a few minutes and check.

“The whole program is to ensure that we can do everything possible to make sure when people earn income, they receive it,” he said.

Most of the effort is educational, rather than remedial or punitive to businesses. Pelaez said Labor staffers try to visit employers at random and do outreach, answer questions and educate them. And sometimes the effort is a direct response to complaints that an employer isn’t paying workers all they’re owed, such as overtime. It’s a mixed bag, but the goal is the same regardless: Get the money to the people who earned it.

When an investigation is involved, some workers might have already left the job by the time it’s determined back wages are owed, Pelaez said. Employers are given a list of which current and former workers are owed and a deadline is set by which they must be paid what’s due. For those who aren’t paid, employers have to prove they made an effort. Then the money goes to the Labor Department, where it’s held for up to that three-year limit while efforts are made to alert them through the outreach program, letting people know how to see if they have unclaimed wages.

Pelaez said another problem is that not all employers keep contact information as required so employees will be easy to trace. And it may not be the employer’s fault: People move — and sometimes their names change.

Spread the word and check the site

Rodriguez and Pelaez told Deseret News they hope people will share the links and the news broadly among their friends and associates so people will know to check to see if they have unclaimed back wages.

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The WOW system is available in both English and Spanish. If money is found, those to whom it belongs can contact the Wage and Hour Division office and claim it. If someone calls with questions and speaks a language other than Spanish or English, Labor Department staffers have the ability to arrange call-backs in more than 200 languages. “We can help them figure out how to claim the money,” said Pelaez. “We can find someone to translate.”

The department has also released a video to explain the WOW program.

Once on the website, there’s a searchable database. Search for the company that employed you and may owe you wages, then enter your name to see if wages are owed. Fill out contact information and upload a signed claim form, which you’ll receive by email. You’ll be asked to create an account to upload ID and other documentation to verify your identity. They estimated processing will take about six weeks before the money is finally in your hands.

Once it’s verified that a claim is legitimate, the money will be made available, said Peleaz. “We want to make sure it gets to the right people at the right time.”