Florida Wage-Theft Laws Could Be Blocked By GOP Bill

A bill moving through the Florida legislature would kill any local laws designed to help workers recover wages owed by their employers, prompting demonstrations against businesses in the state that support the legislation.

The measure would prohibit municipal governments from instituting local wage-theft ordinances, effectively spiking a landmark 2010 law in Miami-Dade County that has helped workers recoup roughly $400,000 in backpay from their employers -- the first law of its kind in the country.

The term "wage theft" typically refers to a situation in which the employer intentionally withholds pay, requires an employee to work off the clock or fails to compensate for overtime. A few local governments, including New York State, have ramped up penalties on employers that commit wage theft.

In Florida, the recent measure that would block local wage-theft laws passed the GOP-majority state House of Representatives last week, but hasn't been voted on in the similarly GOP-controlled state Senate. The state legislation would also preempt a local wage-theft ordinance under consideration in Palm Beach County.

The Florida Retail Federation, a trade group for the state's retailers as well as a major Republican donor, has pushed lawmakers on the bill and also sued in state court to halt the Miami-Dade wage-theft law, arguing that it violates the state constitution.

John Fleming, the Florida Retail Federation spokesman, says that the local wage-theft laws establish de facto court systems that the state constitution doesn’t allow for.

"When we looked at what Miami-Dade County had created to address wage claims, it has all the trappings of a court system, with a process almost identical to the court process, with hearing officers in the place of judges," Fleming says. "We believe the existing court system is the best place for these claims."

The existing court system in Florida, worker advocates argue, is ill-equipped to handle wage-theft complaints, which often amount to just a few hundred dollars or less. In Miami-Dade, workers who believe they've been shorted on their wages by at least $60 can fill out a detailed intake form with the county and are entitled to a hearing.

Backers of the program have tried to get a similar ordinance on the books in Palm Beach, where they say the local courts and legal aid societies don't have the resources to handle complaints.

"Right now, the courts are unable to address wage theft in a timely manner," says Deacon Peter Mazzella, who is part of an interfaith coalition in support of the Palm Beach measure.

As for opposition from the business community against local ordinances, "It's been all rhetoric, scare tactics, saying there will be another level of government," Mazzella says. "Miami-Dade did it with existing staff, with one person overseeing this program. We think something similar could happen in Palm Beach County."

Worker advocates, particularly those in the religious community, have managed to raise awareness about the problem of wage theft around the country in recent years.

In Lee County, residents held a rally Monday outside a shopping center to inform the public about the legislation, according to the Florida News-Press. A group of activists also picketed outside an Office Depot in Lauderdale Lakes on Monday, holding signs that read "Don't Steal My Pay" and "A Pay Check Is A Worker's Right," according to the South Florida Business Journal. Office Depot is a supporter of the state legislation that would ban local wage-theft ordinances.

This week, members of a group called the Florida Wage Theft Task Force plan on delivering a petition signed by residents who oppose the law to the Florida headquarters for Macy's, the retail giant.

"It would certainly give a much better avenue for people making these claims," Mazzella said of local Florida legislation against wage-theft, "and a much better chance to recover money in a timely manner."