St. Augustine's University being investigated by U.S. Department of Labor

Saturday, May 18, 2024
St. Aug's University being investigated by U.S. Department of Labor
There are 12 open cases from employees at the university.

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- The U.S. Department of Labor has announced that their Wage and Hour Division has opened an investigation into Saint Augustine's University.

While the USDOL would not provide specifics, a spokesperson for the North Carolina Department of Labor shared they are investigating 12 open cases from employees at the university. This means at least 12 people working for the university filed complaints with the North Carolina Department of Labor because they have not been paid.

"If there does seem to be merit to the complaint, (the Department of Labor) initially will try to reach some settlement with the employer. That's in fact what happens in quite a few instances. If that doesn't occur, the Department of Labor does have the ability and will do so actually sue on behalf of the employees," said Jeff Hirsch, a professor at UNC School of Law.

Hirsch explained the university's financial situation does not provide legal protection against allegations of non-payment.

"It is not a defense to the Fair Labor Standards Act Violation whether or not you have money, you need to pay your employees under the law. Failure to do so is a violation of that law," said Hirsch.

Sources working for the university told ABC11's Akilah Davis they have missed at least 6 paychecks.

The college's interim president Dr. Marcuss Burgess revealed that the school has missed multiple payrolls starting in February.

"Our current financial situation, or lack thereof, has significantly hindered the operations across our campus, and I am acutely aware of the hardships it has caused. We are pursuing several opportunities around our greatest asset, our land. While we are on the brink of finalizing these transactions, the process has taken longer than anticipated," Burgess said in an email sent to staff in February.

Dr. Candace Laughinghouse, who formerly worked as an assistant professor of Religious Studies at Saint Augustine's, reacted to the complaints.

"I'm not surprised," said Laughinghouse.

Laughinghouse said she was laid off in November, relaying the school informed her it was because of financial reasons. She received about six weeks of severance pay, which expired in January. Because of the nature of hiring at the university level, it's been challenging to find another job.

"I am a single mom and have three children, so it's really been difficult," said Laughinghouse.

The investigation comes amid Saint Augustine's fight to keep its accreditation status. The school has moved to online classes for students.

On Dec. 3, the school's accrediting body, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) said its Board voted to remove Saint Augustine's University from its membership. This move would effectively strip the university of its accreditation.

The university also lost its accreditation appeal. It is currently in the arbitration process.

"I maintain some relationships with some students that recently graduated and they're just excited they were able to get out with an accredited degree," Laughinghouse said.

If the school loses its status, students cannot get financial aid. This is a huge concern as 85% of the SAU student body receives financial aid.

Amid the shortfall, alums have stepped up to try and raise money to support the school's students.

"I firmly believe in the legacy of the institution and support the students and faculty, but we'll just see what happens after whatever is getting ready to happen," said Laughinghouse.

Just weeks ago, the interim president told ABC News it needs $32 million to keep the doors open, saying financial mismanagement is the reason why the university is in this boat to begin with.

"What an inability to pay (employees) might lead to, for instance, if the employer, or university in this case goes into bankruptcy, it may be that there's an acknowledgment that they violated the (Fair Labor Standards) Act, owes the money, but ending up not having to pay all or even any of it under certain circumstances as part of a bankruptcy proceeding," said Hirsch.

ABC11 obtained records of four closed complaints filed by employees against Saint Augustine's over allegations of non-payment.

In one instance, an employee claimed they were not paid $2,100 between Aug. 7, 2023, and Dec. 15, 2023. In January, the complainant confirmed they received $3,000 via direct deposit from the university, and requested the case be closed.

The other three cases were from 2024, with the amounts totaling $5,269.23. In each instance, the complaint was closed after the respective employee confirmed they had received the owed funds via direct deposit from the university.

One of the cases was from 2023, and three others were from this year. Combined, the owed amounts topped $7,000.

In each case, the complaints were closed after employees confirmed they received direct deposits of the money owed.

ABC11 has reached out to the university for comment and hasn't heard back.