Labor activists want local control over wage theft ordinances, ask state to stay out of it

04/10/13 Janelle Irwin
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Labor activists are protesting two bills working their way through Tallahassee they fear would hurt workers. The protest in front of the County Center in downtown Tuesday Tampa was led by AFL-CIO regional coordinator Aaron Carmella who said the so-called “wage theft” bills would rob local governments of their abilities to protect workers from unfair employers.

“They say that they’re trying to streamline a process to keep it the same across the state, but basically what they’re doing is they’re taking away a locality’s right to pass these ordinances and have nothing in place that provides the same protections.”

Similar bills are moving their way through both the House and the Senate. The measures would create a statewide streamlined process for suing employers accused of wage theft which includes things like unpaid overtime and working off the clock. Supporters say that would protect all Floridians not just ones in places with local ordinances. But Carmella called the effort a guise.

“This new process would burden unpaid workers by requiring an employee to notify their employer in writing of their intent to initiate a wage theft claim. They would then be forced into an overloaded and under-financed court system and be denied their right to a jury trial, damages or attorney fees effectively allowing an employer to withhold payment for an extended period of time without repercussions.”

Carmella said many municipalities have already passed ordinances that protect workers.

“In Miami-Dade County, they have a local county commission board that awards wage theft to workers there and this law would outlaw a locality from doing that.”

But Hillsborough County hasn’t passed a wage theft ordinance like the one in Miami-Dade. One of the Commissioners, Kevin Beckner, said that could change depending on the fate of the bills this legislative session.

“We have been exploring that option and that process – their ordinance had been challenged in court and so we were waiting to see the final outcome of the court challenges and the court actually sustained the local’s rights to implement that ordinance. So, if this bill fails in Tallahassee I plan to take action to protect our citizens in Hillsborough County.”

Labor activists claim workers are often scared into thinking they don’t have a reason to complain and sometimes even that they deserve to be paid less for a job. Alekos Zambrano has worked in restaurants for most of his life. He said creating a complicated statewide process would likely discourage even more workers from collecting wages which they are entitled.

“People who work in restaurants like that don’t really pay attention to what’s happening at the state level and sometimes not even at the local level, but if the employee doesn’t feel powerless, if they know that all they have to do is walk to this building behind me or whatever it is they have to do and someone will listen to them, I think it would make a big impact.”

Activists spoke from a podium in front of the mirrored County Center. Behind them, others held signs demanding fair wages for employees. Brian Black held a sign that said Macy’s “You May See” your check. He said the department store chain is one of several companies labor unions are targeting for wage theft.

“Overtime is an issue, undocumented overtime and all the things you just said – a combination of asking people to come in off the clock, stay after they’ve already clocked out – things like that.”

A spokesperson for Macy’s did not immediately respond to an interview request. Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner shamed Florida for not doing nearly enough to protect its workers and urged lawmakers to squash these bills.

“The Progressive State’s Network found that Florida has exactly zero laws on the books that keep employers honest. When it comes to holding employers accountable to employees with such measures as notice of wages and paydays and pay stubs for each pay period, Florida scores zero – a score that only Alabama and Mississippi, two states that have never had wage and hour laws share.”

Titusville Representative Tom Goodson is sponsoring House Bill 1125. The Senate version of the wage theft bill, Senate Bill 1216, is sponsored by Gainesville Senator Rob Bradley. Both are Republicans. Neither returned requests for an interview.

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