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.

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