Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Wage Theft Law Passed in Broward County - Call It Whatever You Like

A controversial law that would empower workers to easily go after their employers for pay was approved Tuesday after two hours of debate by the Broward County Commission. The law was denounced by the business community, who over the course of months called it hostile, insulting and unnecessary. They won a consolation — the law's terminology was changed from "wage theft'' to "non-payment of earned wages.''

A similar political landscape in Palm Beach County scuttled a wage theft law there. Miami-Dade is the only county in Florida that had the law, officials said. Broward became the second by a 7-2 vote, with Commissioners Stacy Ritter and Chip LaMarca voting no.

"Most of our business owners are honest people — the vast majority,'' said LaMarca, complaining about a new level of bureaucracy.

"It's those that aren't that are causing the problem,'' responded Broward Commissioner Kristin Jacobs, the law's sponsor.

Jacobs said her son fell victim to underpayment when he worked for a business that didn't pay workers at all. They earned only tips. Since she proposed the law, she said she's heard about a lot of workers who have been ripped off.

"Those are the companies that need to know that wage theft is not OK in Broward County,'' she said.

Though commissioners conceded that there are laws already on the books to protect employees from working without proper pay, they said they wanted to make it easier, and provide a way for employees to recover their pay without having to enter a courthouse.

"Courts are not the most friendly place for people,'' said Commissioner Ilene Lieberman.

Wage theft occurs when workers are paid below the minimum wage, are not paid overtime, are forced to work off the clock, have their time cards altered or aren't paid for work performed.

Under the law, employees who believe they are owed $60 or more for work done in Broward County will be able to turn to the county for help, as long as the employer isn't the state, federal government or an Indian tribe. The case will go to a county hearing officer for a decision.

A victorious employee would get back wages, plus the possibility of damages up to the amount of the unpaid wages. The employer would also have to pay the county its administrative costs, and pay the employee's attorney fees, if there were any.

Before filing the complaint, the employee would write a letter to the employer outlining how much is owed. If the paycheck showed up within 15 days, the complaint wouldn't be filed.

The law becomes effective in January. Commissioners will vote on a finalized version of the ordinance later this year.

Labor groups supported the law, and said landscapers and musicians are among those left hanging by those who owe them.

But the law, estimated to cost the county $175,000 a year in staffing, was heavily lobbied against by business groups, who suggested the county give money to Legal Aid to defend unpaid workers instead.

Skeet Jernigan, president of the Community & Economic Development Council, said the evidence is clear that employees already are covered by existing laws, and for businesses, this will be "just one more level of compliance.''

"I think they've made a mistake,'' he said after the vote Tuesday.

Sick Days and Employment in Miami - Workers Need A Break

In Miami-Dade County, many service workers punch a time clock despite having a cold or flu, back spasms or migraines. Without paid sick time, they can’t afford to stay home and lose wages — and possibly their jobs.
A proposed county ordinance that would require all employers to offer earned sick time could change that.

“In a community where tourism reigns supreme, it is important that we protect the workers who support one of our main sources of revenue,” said Miami-Dade Commissioner Barbara Jordan, who is sponsoring the ordinance and has asked that it be put on the commission agenda for preliminary approval on Nov. 20.

Jordan spoke Wednesday, at a rally on the plaza outside Miami-Dade’s Government Center, amid more than 30 service workers who waved colorful placards with such sayings as “No Sick Time = Public Health Risks.”

Brought together by a coalition of labor, community and faith leaders, the workers chanted “Paid Sick Days,” as the song Ain’t No Stopping Us Now, blared.

Mishell Warner, secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), Local 1363, representing support workers at Jackson Memorial Hospital, said 45 percent of workers in Miami-Dade do not earn paid sick days, including 88 percent of restaurant workers. The figures come from a study released this summer by ROC United, a public policy think tank.

“Latinos and women are the hardest hit,” she said.

The issue affects public health, because sick workers make others ill. And when a cold turns into pneumonia and the worker goes to the emergency room, it drives up the cost of healthcare, said Martha Baker, a registered nurse and president of SEIU Local 1991, representing doctors at nurses at Jackson Memorial Hospital.

Mandating earned sick time is “the right thing to do for public health and for the economy,” she said.

Over the years, other U.S. cities, including San Francisco, have passed ordinances mandating paid sick time. A study conducted in San Francisco in February by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that the actual cost of paid sick leave was just under 1 percent of wages, said Santiago Leon, employee benefits advisor with ACC Insurance Brokers and founding chairman of Miami-Dade County Worksite Wellness Committee.

So for a worker earning the Florida minimum wage of $7.67 an hour, the extra cost is less than 8 cents an hour, and for those who earn tips and make $4.65 an hour, the cost is less than a nickel, Leon said.
It’s too early to say how businesses will respond.

“We will review the language once it is presented,” said Lauren Searcy, spokeswoman for the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association based in Tallahassee.

“Earned paid sick leave is not a handout. It’s just a matter of creating paid leave equality for our service industry workers,” Jordan said, at the conclusion of the rally. “Let’s make sure that our workers on the frontline working hard everyday for this community are able to use earned paid leave without fear of losing their jobs.”
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