Omaha physical therapist owed over $2,000 in back pay

An Omaha therapist says she's owed over $2,000 in back wages -- and her former employer has been cited a number of times to prove it.
Published: May. 17, 2023 at 10:24 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - Despite the pain caused by Parkinson’s disease, Howard Mattix doesn’t complain -- but his yoga instructor teaches him how to wine-walk.

“Take your time, grapes,” instructor Elaine Oetjen said. “Squish the grapes.”

Oetjen helped Howard and other Parkinson’s patients up to four hours a week for a year, making about $25 an hour.

“She earned it, and more than that, I would think,” Mattix said.

But Elaine says she’s yet to be paid in full. She worked for a small gym that closed a couple of months back, leaving her to fight for more than $2,000 in unpaid wages. So, she exercised an option available to employees in the state: filing a complaint with the Nebraska Department of Labor.

This year, the agency investigated 289 cases of wages owed, including Elaine’s complaint.

“It’s an insult when you think you’re getting paid and you’re not,” Oetjen said. “And when you say something and they say ‘yes, we’ll pay you,’ and look you straight in the face and don’t pay you.”

The Department of Labor issues civil citations to employers owing back pay. The first violation carries a $500 penalty, with $5,000 added on for subsequent offenses.

“And they receive that citation and say, ‘Well, I’ve been intending to pay this individual, here’s their check,’ and then we can withdraw that citation and avoid a hearing process because the employee received what they were supposed to,” said Labor Standards Director Justin Schroeder.

Any citation money collected by the state goes to the school fund but can be used as evidence because workers like Elaine must sue employers to get their wages.

“It gives me validation that I worked and I’m owed this money, but this piece of paper is not going to get me $2,700,” she said.

“The Department of Labor does not have the authority to pursue those wages beyond that point,” Schroeder said. “We don’t represent the individuals in court. They would need to go through small claims and represent themselves or consult with an attorney.”

Elaine’s former employer as a $6,000 citation pending against them, but promises 6 On Your Side to pay the back wages yet this week. Elaine isn’t holding her breath, and for now, she earns hugs from thankful clients.

Since 2019, NDOL has recovered $2.7 million in pay for workers who filed wage complaints. The civil citations seem to be incentives. During more than 230 Labor Department investigations, the employer elected to go ahead and pay back wages. The businesses issued citations are available on NDOL’s website.