The U.S. Labor Department has long been concerned that gas stations attendants in New Jersey _ one of just two states where customers aren't allowed to pump their own fuel _ are getting paid less than minimum wage and not earning overtime.
Now the department is conducting a yearlong campaign to crack down.
All 20 of its northern New Jersey wage and hour investigators, plus some from southern New Jersey, are spending 12 months looking into abuses.
"It's one of the worst industries that we have in our state in terms of overall compliance," said Joseph Petrecca, who runs the Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division in northern New Jersey. He said about three-fifths of gas stations have illegal pay practices.
He said his investigators have long tried to crack down on service stations but are now using surveillance _ staking out stations to record who was working when _ to catch those with illegal labor practices.
Between 2007 and 2010, the agency collected $1.2 million in back pay for gas attendants in New Jersey, Petrecca said. The new campaign is called "NINJA," for Noncompliance Initiative for New Jersey Attendants, and was begun in October. So far, it has collected more than $600,000, he said.
He said gas attendants are often exploited because many are immigrants who are unfamiliar with their rights. Some are illegal immigrants and fear authorities. Some believe they would be blackballed from other gas stations if they notify officials about illegal practices at one.
Sal Risalvato, executive director of the New Jersey Gasoline C-Store Automotive Association, said it's unfair to target the state's 2,800 gas stations.
"It's not that it's prevalent in gas stations," he said. "It's common in any kind of business where the owner does it all and they don't have a payroll department."
Risalvato said many gas station employees are paid by salary, though the regulators say they should be paid hourly.
"They're making it like business owners are ripping off employees," he said. "They're not. It's not like the employees are complaining about it."