February 19, 2015 — ST. PETERSBURG. The City Council chambers were packed with members of Fight for 15, SEIU, 15 Now, Awake Pinellas, and workers there to testify on how they have personally been the victims of wage theft. Liberal Councilmember Darden Rice of the city’s east side District 4, who was introducing the Wage Theft ordinance, spoke to how St. Petersburg so badly needed it. She cited data from the Tampa Bay Times that “Median household income in Tampa Bay has sunk lower than it was in 2010, the early days of recovery from the Great Recession, cementing the bay area’s dead-last ranking in income among the country’s 25 biggest metro areas. … There’s no getting around that a lot of the jobs we’ve added in the past five years are in leisure/hospitality and in the retail trade, and they tend to pay lower wages.”
One worker had been fired for asking questions about whey his pay had been shorted. Workers testified to being forced to attend work-related meetings for which they were not paid. Hourly workers were illegally declared to be supervisory personnel, so they could be denied overtime pay. Reverend Bruce Wright testified that from 40% to 60% of the homeless actually work, but still cannot afford housing, and many of them can only get day labor which is particularly prone to wage theft. One worker added, “You can’t even call the police!”
Miami in the lead.
Councilmember Rice stated that her ordinance was closely based on Miami’s Wage Theft measure which had become effective on March 1, 2010. That measure had been challenged, and had passed the test. It created a mechanism whereby, if a worker were not paid in full for hours worked (cheated out of at least $60), they could file a complaint with the county. The county would then within 15 days appoint a competent Hearing Examiner.
The law states:
“[I]f the preponderance of the evidence demonstrates a wage theft violation, the Hearing Examiner shall order the employer to pay wage restitution to the affected employee in an amount equal to three times the amount of back wages that the respondent employer is found to have unlawfully failed to pay the complainant employee; this treble amount shall include the back wages in addition to liquidated damages as compensation for the economic losses suffered by reason of the employee not receiving their wage at the time it was due.” [emphasis added]
In the first year after implementation, Miami workers recouped $400,000 in back wages.
In the absence of a Wage Theft law, a Florida worker’s only recourse is through the court system — a court system which sneers at such “small” cases, and which can take years to clear a case, during which a worker and their family can be destroyed by homelessness and hunger.
Friendly, but …
The Council reception was generally friendly. But a shadow passed over the affair as Councilmember Charlie Gerges of St. Pete’s west side’s 90% white District 1 lectured the crowd. He explained that there were already perfectly fine state and federal laws on the books, and fighting wage theft was no problem, since in a case of $500 theft, the worker would get their $500 back, and the lawyer would be eager for such cases since they would eventually rake in $10,000 in fees from the offending employer.
By a unanimous vote, the ordinance was sent to committee for further study and action. But with Gerges’ comments as a warning, the devil is in the details, and it is safe to assume that the battle has only begun.
There are already rumblings that the Republican-controlled state legislature may introduce another preemption bill to outlaw local wage theft ordinances.
According to the Pump Handle:
“Ever since Miami-Dade adopted the nation’s first countywide wage theft ordinance in 2010, it’s been under attack. For the first two years after its passage, state legislators tried to pass legislation to pre-empt local communities from passing their own wage theft laws; this last legislative session, they tried again but included a carve out for Miami-Dade and for Broward County, which passed its own wage theft measure in 2012. All three tries have died in the state Senate, but worker advocates aren’t optimistic that the fight is over.”
In 2013, the legislature met a threatened ballot initiative for Paid Sick Leave in Orange County, by adding language to Statute 218.077(2) that adds “or to provide employment benefits not otherwise required by state or federal law” to the law that states, “a political subdivision may not establish, mandate, or otherwise require an employer to pay a minimum wage, other than a state or federal minimum wage, to apply a state or federal minimum wage to wages exempt from a state or federal minimum wage.” [emphasis added]
We may face similar underhanded attempts this go-round. Thus the fight for the $15 minimum wage and the fight against Wage Theft share a common cause, and we can expect that the fight against Tallahassee’s totalitarian rule over our cities and counties through preemption is to become a front-and-center issue on the state’s political agenda.
— submitted by Jeff Roby
15 Now Florida