Florida has a problem with minimum wage violations and it could get worse

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Fight for 15 minimum wage
Fight for 15 rally in St. Petersburg. By Seán Kinane / WMNF News (29 Nov. 2016).

Florida’s minimum wage is set to increase later this month. But some policy analysts warn that Florida needs a stronger mechanism to actually enforce it.

On September 30, Florida’s minimum wage will rise from $10 per hour to $11, under a ballot initiative passed by Florida voters in 2020. Under that measure, Florida’s minimum wage will gradually rise $1 each year, until it reaches $15 by Sept. 2026.

Some of Florida’s lowest-paid workers could see their earnings increase this month, amid rising inflation and skyrocketing rent that’s pushing working people out. But just having a minimum wage law on the books doesn’t guarantee it’ll always be enforced.

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While Florida’s had a state minimum wage higher than the federal minimum wage since 2005, it lacks the capacity to enforce it. That’s at least in part because Florida’s state Department of Labor and Economic Security was dismantled by the legislature in 2002 at the behest of then-Governor Jeb Bush, in one of his most grievous attacks on Florida workers.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, Florida is one of just a handful of states nationwide that lacks a state labor department, which — prior to its abolition — had tracked workforce statistics, housed a hotline for workers to learn about their rights, and had served as a mechanism for enforcing wage and hour laws.

After its dismantlement, those responsibilities were — in theory — meant to be spread across various state agencies. In actuality, experts say this has resulted in a fragmented system that to this day fails to meaningfully enforce policies, including Florida’s minimum wage, that materially affects the lives of working Floridians, their families, and their communities.

“This is the wild, wild West for employers,” Cynthia Hernandez, former executive director of the South Florida AFL-CIO, told In These Times in 2016. ​“What has happened since the dismantling of the department of labor is egregious, to say the least.”

The effects of this weak enforcement of Florida’s minimum wage are documented.

A 2021 report from the Florida Policy Institute and Rutger University found that after Florida raised its state minimum wage in 2005, the number of minimum wage violations in Florida more than doubled, affecting 17% of Florida’s low-wage workforce – or, roughly 250,000 Floridians each year, on average.

Florida workers lost an average of $1.32 per hour between 2005-2019, according to the report — representing nearly a 20% cut in the minimum wage they were legally owed. “Notably, this does not account for any lost income above the minimum wage that workers may have been promised or otherwise owed, so the wage theft these workers experienced could be even higher,” the report reads.

Alexis Tsoukalas, a lead author of The Florida Policy Institute’s report, told WMNF the full scope of minimum wage violations in Florida remains unclear and underreported.

Still, based on the data they’ve managed to collect, the Florida Policy Institute predicts that a similar spike in violations could occur as Florida’s $15 minimum wage continues to phase in.

“Florida has never fully prioritized enforcing wages for the majority of working people,” said Tsoukalas, adding, “There’s an opportunity to rectify that.”

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By Seán Kinane / WMNF News.

Problems with the state’s enforcement of minimum wage laws

A minimum wage violation occurs when an employer pays an eligible worker less than the legal minimum wage — which, in Florida, is $10 an hour (until Sept. 30), or $6.98 for tipped workers.

Workers in the state’s top industries tourism, agriculture, personal and laundry services, and service work — generally suffer the highest rates of wage theft, according to the FPI report. Workers of color, particularly Black and Latina women, are also disproportionately affected.

“Part of that is because, due to historical inequities and discrimination, these groups of Floridians were sidelined from earning more income and being in higher paying jobs,” Tsoukalas explained. “So naturally, because they’re overrepresented in low-wage work, they’re much more likely to face higher rates of wage theft.”

But it’s not just Florida’s low-wage workforce that stands to suffer from lost wages. “While working Floridians are the primary targets of wage theft, allowing it to go unchecked has broader implications for the rest of the state,” said Tsoukalas. “It hurts businesses, it hurts state revenue, and of course it hurts working people themselves.”

One of the problems is: Florida has no state agency dedicated to recovering wages for workers. At this time, workers have just a couple of options for reporting a minimum wage violation.

You can file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, or file a complaint with the Florida Attorney General’s Office.

But both of these options have their flaws.

As a federal agency, the U.S. Department of Labor only has the power to enforce the federal minimum wage. Therefore, the agency can only recover up to $7.25 per hour owed to Floridians who suffer wage theft — nearly $3 below the state’s minimum wage.

The federal Wage and Hour Division has also seen a decline in resources and staffing, per The Prospect, which can delay or further complicate the complaints process.

But filing a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office isn’t a perfect solution either. “While it is the Attorney General’s responsibility to pursue minimum wage violations to mitigate wage theft, everything points to the fact that they are not doing that,” said Tsoukalas.

Florida, like just a few other states in the country, has no designated minimum wage investigators. And, under an amendment to Florida’s state constitution that raised its minimum wage in 2005 – and subsequent legislation — the State Attorney General is the only state official with the authority to enforce the minimum wage by bringing a lawsuit.

From 2016 to 2019, the AG’s office received just 29 complaints, according to records obtained by the Florida Policy Institute.

An investigation by Politico, published in 2018, confirmed that between 2011 and early 2016, the Attorney General’s office failed to undertake a single wage-and-hour enforcement action, despite presiding over one of the country’s largest workforces.

“Working Floridians need to feel empowered to report violations and recover their hard-earned wages,” Tsoukalas of the Florida Policy Institute said. “If the state continues to ignore rampant wage theft, it sends a clear message to employers that they can cheat workers and get away with it.”

Strengthening minimum wage enforcement in Florida

Florida State Capitol in Tallahassee. Credit: Stuart Seeger/Flickr

There have been efforts to fix these problems with wage theft enforcement. Local governments — including Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties — have created local processes for recovering wages for workers.

Hillsborough County has a wage theft recovery program. Pinellas has a wage theft coordinator, and a number you can call to report underpayment or the nonpayment of wages you’re owed.

On a state level, there have also been legislative efforts. In recent years, lawmakers have introduced legislation that would reestablish Florida’s state department of labor, and address other issues with the complaint process.

For instance, requiring low-wage workers, already in a precarious situation, to sue their employer to recover wages. That’s after first informing their employer of their decision to pursue legal action.

“Putting the impetus on working Floridians, especially those already struggling to make ends meet working low-wage jobs, to sue their employers in order to recover back wages is unfair and unrealistic,” said Tsoukalas. “There needs to be additional robust protections, harsher penalties. Inspections need to occur at workplaces.”

What to know about wage theft

Wage theft is the non-payment or underpayment of earned wages by employers.

That includes, but is not limited to, earned paid time off, leave, vacation, sick pay, and illegal deductions. Wage theft can also occur in the form of denying workers meal breaks they’re entitled to, asking workers to work off-the-clock, and misclassifying workers as independent contractors.

How to report wage theft

While the current mechanisms for enforcement are weak, Floridians do have a few options for reporting a minimum wage violation.

You can fill out a complaint online with the State Attorney General’s Office, or file a complaint by phone at 1-800-226-6667.

You can also file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor Department’s Wage and Hour division, which has several offices in the state of Florida.

That complaint can be filed online or by calling 1-866-487-9243.

For Pinellas County Residents

If you live in Pinellas County, you can file a wage theft complaint through the Pinellas County Office of Human Rights, which fields wage theft complaints in the county.

You can file a complaint with the Pinellas County Office of Human Rights online, or call (727) 464-4880 and ask for the Intake Officer.

For Hillsborough County Residents

If you live in Hillsborough County, you can file a wage theft complaint by calling Consumer Protection Services at (813) 635-8316 or filling out an online complaint form.

You can find more information about this process by visiting Hillsborough County’s Wage Recovery Program webpage.

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