Wage theft bill heads to House floor

Feb 22, 2012

A bill that would prevent local governments from creating their own rules to crack down on wage theft passed in a House panel Wednesday. But, as Sascha Cordner reports, the move came with heavy opposition from members of the public who say it would mean the end of a wage-theft protection program in Miami.

Wage theft can be anything from an employer paying an employee below the state or federal minimum wage to an employee not receiving a final paycheck at the end of their employment.

“My son works for a restaurant in Plantation, Florida. He worked for a year and a half. His wages were stolen for one-weeks’ vacation, based on the merit of his manager didn’t check of a box.”

About two years ago, Miami-Dade County enacted an ordinance regulating wage theft, essentially creating the Miami-Dade Wage Theft Protection Program, that could help people like Glynda Linton’s son.

However, it’s been a matter of contention among opponents, like John Rogers with the Florida Retail Federation. The group is involved in an on-going lawsuit, claiming the ordinance is unconstitutional.

“Basically, we think the Dade-county ordinance violates Article 5 Section 1 of the Florida constitution, where it says no municipality, no county can establish a court or a tribunal. This thing in Dade-County operates just like a court. It uses the rules of civil procedure, subpoena power, troubled damages; it has all the accoutrements of a court, it just doesn’t call itself a court.”

It was the Florida Retail Federation that brought the issue to Republican Representative Tom Goodson of Titusville, who filed House Bill 609 that would make employees take complaints to the courts, instead of local wage theft protection programs.

“A county or a municipality or a political subdivision may not or maintain in any effect any law, ordinance, or rule that creates a requirement or regulation for the purpose of addressing unpaid wages. Any other regulations or ordinances or provisions for the recovery of unpaid wages by the county, city, or political subdivision is prohibited in mine [bill] and is preempted by the state.”

Meaning the state’s only wage-theft protection program, in Miami-Dade, would be eliminated under Goodson’s bill. So, would a pilot program that just got off the ground in Palm Beach County.

Jeanette Smith, with South Florida Interfaith Worker Justice, helped craft the Miami-Dade ordinance. She says while she agrees that there should be a statewide solution, she says eliminating local wage theft programs will hurt, instead of help:

“We looked at all the options available. The courts, unfortunately, were not satisfactory. That’s simply the status quo. The pilot program in Palm Beach County. A teacher went to that program, was referred to private counsel, was told it would cost 3-thousand dollars to get her recovered wages. If you haven’t been paid your last paycheck, you can’t pay your rent, you can’t buy food for your children, you’re certainly not in the position to pay filing fees and go to the court and wait an extended amount of time.”

Sheila Hopkins, the Associate Director of Florida Catholic Conference, says instead of banning local ordinances and leaving it up to the state courts, lawmakers should do a study that could look into a statewide solution:

“You know, we always hear that the courts are restrained because of the costs, so that may not be the best solution, especially for small counties. So, we’re saying let’s look at it. I have a statement here by the Florida bishops that support a study.”

But, an amendment filed by Democratic Representative Darren Soto of Orlando to do an interim study on the issue was voted down, by the largely republican House Judiciary Committee.

Democratic Representative John Patrick Julien of North Miami Beach says he wishes the Miami-Dade Wage Theft-Protection could be saved somehow because it faces elimination under Goodson’s bill. Julien referred to the program’s success so far in his district:

“In January of 2012, the Miami-Dade County reported to House staff that there have been a total of 901 cases and $393,213.98 awarded to claimants.”

But, Republican Representative Michael Weinstein of Orange Park says any argument for local home rule on this issue is null:

“Article 5 was mentioned and basically the 1960s, through the constitution, decided to do away with local magistrates and do away with a lot of local efforts, and create a county court in a circuit court system to do away with all of those issues. And, whether the state’s doing a good job or bad job, that’s basically what’s in the constitution, so I don’t see how we can allow any county to go off on its own.”

Goodson’s bill passed in the House Judiciary Committee along party lines, with Democrats opposed. The measure now heads to the House floor.

Meanwhile, its Senate Companion is stalled in a Senate committee and still has to clear one other committee before it can go to the floor. The Senate bill contains an amendment that would exempt Miami-Dade’s wage theft program from facing elimination.