Wage Theft Bill Passes First House Panel

Mar 12, 2014

A bill aimed at creating a uniform standard across the state to address residents’ wage theft grievances passed its first House committee Wednesday, but it was met with much opposition.

Restaurants are one type of workplace commonly accused of wage theft. Tallahassee chef Ben Bennett says it happened to him at one of his former jobs.

“I had a previous employer of mine who took taxes out of my paycheck without ever having me fill out any tax paperwork for it. And then, he gave me small little paycheck stubs that didn’t show how much he was taking out or my social or any kind of information like that. And, at the end of the year, I never got any tax information at all. So, essentially, he was paying me and then he was taking out taxes and taking the taxes for himself,” said Bennett.

He and several other employees wanted to pursue legal action, but a suit was never filed because too many employees feared they’d never work in the hospitality industry in the Capital city again.

Bennett says wage theft needs to be addressed, although he’d like the process to be more anonymous.

It’s an issue Florida lawmakers are spending their fourth consecutive year grappling with. In the past, it was filed by Titusville Republican Representative Tom Goodson. Now, Polk City Republican Representative Neil Combee is taking the helm this year.

“The inspiration for this bill is—since we have 67 counties in Florida—there is, although not likely anytime soon, the chance for 67 different wage theft ordinances,” said Combee.

There are already local wage theft ordinances seeking to address residents’ grievances against their employer’s failure to pay them in Alachua, Broward, and Miami-Dade counties that would not be impacted by the bill. But, Combee says given the differences in those county ordinances, he doesn’t want the rest of the state to have that kind of patchwork.

“So, when you’re trying to conduct business in a number of counties, it would be helpful from an economic development standpoint, from a business standpoint, to have a consistent application of the law, and that’s exactly what we’re trying to do here,” Combee added.

So, he modeled the bill after Palm Beach County’s model. They don’t have an actual ordinance, but the county did pass a resolution creating a program for wage theft claimants to be represented by the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County.

County commissioners recently allocated 104-thousand dollars to continue the program, but Florida AFL-CIO’s Political Director Rich Templin says it’s unfair for lawmakers to ask other counties to adopt such a program with such an expensive price tag when they’re not even sure how successful it will be in other areas.

“If you look at Miami-Dade, where they have created a small, simple, cheap, administrative practice, that is working amazingly well. And, if you compare it to Palm Beach, which is spending over $100,000, and so far to a less result, this is putting an increased burden on tax payers. This is telling local governments, ‘hey you can deal with this problem in your community, but we’re going to make you spend as much money as possible.’ Now, to hear that coming out of the Florida House is kind of surprising,” said Templin.

The Florida Retail Federation asked the Legislature to address the issue. In 2011, they filed a suit questioning the constitutionality of Miami-Dade’s ordinance, but a judge dismissed the case. The group’s General Counsel Samantha Padgett says while she prefers the language in past legislation, she believes creating a uniform standard based on Palm Beach’s model is still a good idea.

“Palm Beach worked with its business community and its local community activist organizations to develop a program that serves as model legislation for the bill you see before you. We applaud Palm Beach County for reviewing this issue and choosing not to adopt additional regulation, but instead to work with its local business community and legal aid society to adopt an approach that successfully addresses this issue,” said Padgett.

Still, Florida Fraternal Order of Police President James Preston, representing about 20-thousand law enforcement officers across the state, says he’s opposed to the bill for several reasons. He doesn’t believe the bill does enough to protect his fellow officers.

“As a result of being short-staffed or understaffed, many of them are required to work overtime. However, they’re not paid for that overtime. They’re forced to flex off or take comp time at the end of the week, which then requires other people to cover their shift, creating more overtime, and those people, in turn, will be off the next week. It’s just a snowball effect,” said Preston.

The House Civil Justice Subcommittee passed the bill 7 to 4 with Democrats opposed. Meanwhile, Combee and Altamonte Springs Republican Senator David Simmons, the bill’s Senate sponsor, are expected to hold a meeting with stakeholders soon to address their concerns.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.