Labor Dept. Courts for Workers…More Cases, Fewer Judges

Sunday, December 22, 2013
Black lung protester (photo: Bob Bird, AP)

The federal government’s court system for labor-related grievances is suffering from a shortage of judges and a growing abundance of cases.


Ten years ago, the Office of Administrative Law Judges (OALJ) employed 53 judges. Today, that total has fallen to just 35 (and one part-time judge). Meanwhile, the department’s new cases have soared by 68% in the past five years. Pending cases have experienced an even bigger growth: 134%.


In some jurisdictions, OALJ offices have lost more than half their judges. The San Francisco office went from nine judges in 1999 to only four now. It also lost its satellite office in Long Beach, which used to have two additional judges until it closed in 2000.


Those left to oversee cases are staring at ever-mounting workloads. New immigration cases involving employers seeking to hire foreign workers on a permanent basis are more than seven times what they were four years ago. Pending immigration cases are now 23 times larger in number.


The cases range in subject from those brought under the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act to those under the Black Lung Benefits Act to others filed under the Defense Base Act. The latter, which applies to military contract workers, have gone up due to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.


Chief Judge Stephen Purcell has characterized the staffing cuts as having a “devastating” impact on OALJ operations.


The office “has been, and remains, inadequately staffed to handle our mission-critical responsibilities,” Purcell wrote in a memo to Deputy Secretary of Labor Seth Harris last April, according to the Center for Public Integrity. “We are fast reaching a point where the productivity of this Office will sustain a significant downturn from which we will likely not recover for years to come.”


The department has requested more than $1 million in new funding for judges. But officials don’t know if they will get this money next year as part of the new federal budget.

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

Dwindling Number of Judges Burdens Workers (by Jim Morris, Center for Public Integrity)

Rising Caseload, Fewer Labor Department Judges Triggers Painful Mix for Suffering Laborers (by Jim Morris, Center for Public Integrity)


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