Miami Herald: Florida dead last in protecting workers

Editorial, Miami Herald, June 13, 2012

OUR OPINION: Miami-Dade, with its wage-theft law, is a national model the state should stop attacking

Miami-Dade County’s effective wage-theft ordinance emerged safe and sound from this year’s legislative session, despite the best efforts of lawmakers — in the sway of monied special interests — to kill it.

Because the ordinance still stands, it casts Miami-Dade County as a leader in a state that does little to nothing to protect workers from employers who don’t pay up. Better still, Broward and Palm Beach counties are considering their own wage-theft ordinances, joining Miami-Dade at the forefront of protecting workers, helping well-intentioned employers who are in a financial bind and penalizing the bad actors.

A ranking by the Progressive States Network found that “Florida has exactly zero laws on the books that would incentivize employers to stay honest.” And when it comes to holding employees accountable to their employees with such measures as notice of wages and paydays and pay stubs with each pay period, “Florida held the shameful honor of scoring 0, a score that only Alabama and Mississippi — two states that have never had wage and hour laws — can also share.”

Well, whoopee — we’re among the best of the worst!

Not every company or business owner withholds payment for work done out of a skin-flinted maliciousness. Sometimes, cash flow is a real problem, and employees get stuck, unpaid. Either way, it’s a problem in Miami-Dade County and far beyond its borders. It’s enough of a problem in this community of day laborers, construction workers, migrant workers and small businesses that Miami-Dade enacted an innovative solution.

Its wage-theft ordinance gives workers who have consistently gone unpaid an effective tool with which to go up against their delinquent employers and win. When a worker lodges a complaint of nonpayment, the county tries to conciliate the matter, talking to the employer — usually by phone — to come to some sort of meeting of the minds. If that initial effort is unsuccessful, the employer gets a letter and then the case goes to a hearing examiner for a decision. If the employer has a history of abuses, he likely will owe not just the original amount withheld, but also is penalized twice that amount, which goes to the worker. The business owner also has to pay administrative costs.

It’s a low-cost solution that, since November 2010, has recovered more than $1 million for workers.

But this example of fair play has sent statewide business interests over the edge. The Florida Retail Federation, which protested that there should be a statewide wage-theft law, did some serious arm-twisting in Tallahassee this year. The group sought to make it almost impossible for cheated employees to seek, to say nothing of recover, payment. This would have eviscerated Miami-Dade’s ordinance — and run roughshod over the county’s home-rule charter.

State Sen. Anitere Flores, chair of the Judiciary Committee, stood firm to protect the county’s law, as did a bipartisan group of Miami-Dade lawmakers, and the bill went down. Good work, Sen. Flores.

Better still, Circuit Court Judge Lester Langer, in considering a Retail Federation lawsuit against the ordinance, found for the county, saying, “This was a responsible and reasonable exercise of governmental authority.”

As for the study that shows Florida to be a real laggard in coming to the aid of aggrieved workers, the Sunshine State lacks a department of labor, which would be a natural venue for enforcement. Perhaps the Retail Federation will step up? There should be an effective statewide law. The state attorney general’s office could join the Federation in taking the lead. Otherwise, Florida will remain dead last, denying fairness and justice to taxpaying workers.