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Florida Independent: Wage theft a growing problem for low-wage workers in the U.S., Florida

by Marcos Restrepo, Florida Independent, April 19, 2012

Wage theft, the practice of stiffing workers out of money they are owed, has emerged as a major economic justice issue in the U.S. over the last decade, to the point where over 60 percent “of low-wage workers experience wage theft each week,” according to a report released Wednesday.

According to the report, released by the Progressive States Network, worker advocacy organizations “revealed a disturbing reality: seventy years after enactment of the nation’s first wage law, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, enforcement capacity has diminished to the point where there are essentially no cops on the beat.”

The report, “Cracking Down on Wage Theft”, adds that “a sharp decrease in union membership and an increase in low-wage and informal employment … has led to a significant rise in wage theft, to the point that it is virtually ubiquitous in certain industries,” like the retail and food service industries.

In a phone conference held Wednesday, Tim Judson — the senior policy specialist for workers’ rights at the Progressive States Network who coauthored the report — said Florida vacated the field by eliminating its Department of Labor in 2002.

The report explains that

Florida lawmakers abolished the state’s Department of Labor and Employment Security in 2002. The move eliminated any mechanism for enforcing the state’s wage laws. In 2010, Miami-Dade County stepped forward and enacted the nation’s first sweeping municipal wage theft law. Worker advocates and county officials crafted an innovative mechanism for enforcement, administered by the Department of Small Business Development. The Wage Theft Ordinance entitles workers to double-liquidated damages, and makes employers liable to the County for administrative hearing costs. In its first year, the county processed 662 claims and workers recovered $1,760,177 in wages. For the last two years, state lawmakers have sought to abolish the program through legislation pre-empting local governments from enforcing wage laws.

This push to terminate Miami-Dade’s wage theft ordinance started in the 2011 legislative session, when state Rep. Tom Goodson, R-Titusville, filed a bill to prohibit local governments from adopting or maintaining any “law, ordinance, or rule” that would address wage theft. Goodson’s bill did not pass.

In the 2012 legislative session, Goodson filed the bill again, as did state Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs. This time the House version passed but the Senate version died in committee.

The Research Institute on Social and Economic Policy (known as RISEP) at Florida International University released its second study on wage theft in Florida in January. It shows how wage theft remains a widespread problem that affects millions of Floridians.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division announced just last week that two Florida restaurant companies will have to pay back wages to almost 150 workers.

In December 2011, the Wage and Hour Division announced that through its enforcement initiative “targeting full-service buffet restaurants in South Florida,” it “has found consistent and widespread noncompliance with the minimum wage, overtime, and record-keeping provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act.”

The Wage and Hour Division added that it investigated 34 establishments in South Florida, “recovering $667,704 in back wages for 271 restaurant employees. In addition, the division has assessed $14,520 in civil money penalties against employers for willful and/or repeated FLSA violations.”

The South Florida Sun Sentinel reported Tuesday that “a Palm Beach County wage-theft law, to help low-income workers cheated out of pay, gained new life Tuesday despite lingering opposition from business groups.”

“For nearly two years, local religious leaders have pushed Palm Beach County to approve a wage-theft law intended to help low-income workers recover overdue wages without having to go to court,” the Sun Sentinel added.

The GOP’s efforts to push through state legislation that would prohibit other local governments from enacting ordinances similar to Miami-Dade’s wage theft program has found support in the private sector. A Miami court announced in late March its decision to dismiss the constitutional challenge brought by the Florida Retail Federation against Miami-Dade County’s anti-wage theft program.

Through the 2012 legislative session, religious, labor, community, government and business organizations called on the Legislature to vote against the Goodson/Simmons bills.