A coalition of labor rights groups stepped up its efforts to block proposed legislation that will make it more difficult to punish wage theft in Florida. After picketing a Home Deport near Fort Lauderdale, members of the Florida Wage Theft Task Force said that they will be presenting a petition with more than 6,000 signatures to Macy’s headquarters in Miami urging the giant retailer to withdraw its support for the HB 609.
“Simply said, this legislation will only make it easier for unscrupulous employers to steal wages, said Jeanette Smith of South Florida Interfaith Worker Justice. “This is not okay; this is not who we are as a nation nor as a state. It’s un-American. Our country was founded under the value that if you work hard, you will be rewarded with your earned salaries. With this bill, we are allowing bad employers to cheat hard-working Floridians and to harm honest businesses in the process.”
HB 609, which passed the Florida House of Representatives in February, would nullify a Miami-Dade County ordinance against wage theft, prevent other local governments from taking similar action, and create a statewide wage theft process that lacks a strong penalty component and requires workers to notify their employers in writing before filing a wage theft complaint.
After the hard work of the wage theft coalition, Miami-Dade County passed its ground-breaking wage theft ordinance in 2010. The ordinance includes a provision for triple damages if an employer is found guilty of wage theft. Since the ordinance passed, 313 workers have used the ordinance to recover stolen wages totaling $400,000.
Wage theft comes in many forms: failure to pay the minimum wage and/or overtime, misclassifying workers as contractors, falsifying pay and/or time records, and outright non-payment of wages.
According to the Research Institute on Social and Economic Policy, the Miami-Dade County ordinance is needed because the state does little to prosecute wage theft and the federal government’s wage theft agency is under staffed and doesn’t have the resources to deal with the huge volume of wage theft in Florida.
A report issued by the institute in January estimates that $60 million to $90 million a year is stolen from workers in Florida. The report says that in Florida wage theft ” is a widespread problem across a broad spectrum of industries” The highest incidence of wage theft occur in the tourism, retail, and construction industries.
The report also finds that “in spite of ample evidence of widespread wage theft among low-income workers, as of December 2011, the Florida attorney general had not brought one single civil action to enforce the state’s minimum wage law enacted in 2004.”
HB 609 and its Senate companion SB 862 was introduced in the Florida House by Rep Tom Goodson at the request of the Florida Retail Federation. The federation says that bill “provides a statewide solution to address the issue of protecting employee wages.”
But the statewide solution, which would create a civil process for recovering stolen wages, will discourage employees from taking action to recover stolen wages because it requires workers before taking any action to notify their employer in writing about the amount stolen and the date and time when the alleged theft occurred. Employers would then have 15 days to act on the charges.
The Wage Theft Task Force includes South Florida Interfaith Worker Justice, the Florida Immigration Coalition, We Count, the Research Institute of Economic Policy, and the Florida AFL-CIO.