Economy

Florida County Makes It Easier For Workers To Get Unpaid Wages From Bosses

CREDIT: AP

Construction workers fill out wage theft complaints in Miami-Dade County in 2011.

Workers who get cheated out of their due pay in central Florida will have a much easier time recovering what they’re owed after Osceola County approved a tough new wage theft law, making it the latest in a string of local governments to take on increased responsibility for enforcing federal wage and hour laws.

Under the new rules, workers will be able to file cases with the county and employers who are accused of wage theft could end up having to repay triple the amount they stole from employees if they fight a case and lose. Workers in Miami-Dade County have so far recovered about $1.8 million since that wage theft law came online in late 2010.

Osceola’s law adds an important, tougher element to the basic model laid out in Miami-Dade. Companies that fight a wage theft claim and lose can have their business license revoked by the county.

Efforts to combat wage theft at the local level appear to be spreading, according to Tesedeye Gebreselassie of the National Employment Law Project (NELP). “It’s clear that existing laws and resources on fed state level are insufficient, and we’re starting to see more cities and counties take action in any way that they can,” she said. “There’s a growing trend to figure out what can be done on the local level now that everybody’s acknowledged that wage theft is a huge problem.” Propagating enforcement systems that work will be especially important if low-wage workers are to actually realize the economic benefits that should come from a rash of state and local minimum wage increases around the country, as the NELP argues in a new report.

There is no perfect deterrent, since a business owner willing to ignore wage laws in the first place is often going to choose to go out of business rather than dole out back pay. And the prevalence of low-wage, low-skill jobs in the American economy has helped create a sort of race to the ethical bottom among employers who are more interested in cutting corners than giving honest pay for honest work. As David Weil, the top federal official in charge of enforcing wage and hour laws for the Department of Labor, told the New York Times in 2014, “We have a change in the structure of work that is then compounded by a falling level of what is viewed as acceptable in the workplace in terms of how you treat people and how you regard the law.”

“I have a very close relative that had this happen to him,” Osceola County Commissioner Michael Harford (D) told ThinkProgress. “It was very difficult for him to understand how he was getting paid.” Harford gradually realized that wage theft was relatively common among his constituents, and helped push the law through this spring after voters elected four Democrats and one Republican to the commission last fall.

Harford’s reforms not only increase the consequences of wage theft for employers who get caught, but also make it easier for workers to find legal help. If the new adjudication process finds a company liable for wage theft, it must pay treble damages for the withheld pay and also cover the legal fees incurred by the workers who brought the allegation. “If we had more of an incentive for representation in these cases, we’d see hopefully the same effort to vindicate workers’ rights that we see to vindicate the rights of the injured in personal injury cases,” Rep. Alan Grayson (D) told ThinkProgress.

There’s no reason other localities can’t follow Osceola and Miami’s lead. Jeanette Smith, executive director of South Florida Interfaith Worker Justice and a key member of the coalition that researched the wage theft question for two years before bringing a legislative proposal in Miami-Dade, told ThinkProgress she thinks the model ought to be easily transferred even beyond the state line.

“I tell people not to just change the name on it, make sure it works,” Smith said. “But in general I think this kind of process is portable, as long as you’ve got a division of your government that can pick it up and administer it, and you have the political will, and frankly that you have responsible businesses that speak up.” Partly that’s because the laws don’t require business owners to comply with any new regulations and they don’t require local governments to hire new enforcement officers. “These ordinances do not put new regulations in place. Nothing at all. It’s simply offering a venue where the workers can go,” Smith said.

The real cutting edge of a law like Osceola’s comes well before a lawyer would ever get involved, in a pre-hearing process called conciliation. After a worker notifies the county of a wage theft allegation and provides evidence for the claim, the county contacts the employer and invites him to address the complaint voluntarily. Conciliation has produced a little over half of the $1.8 in recovered wages and damages under Miami-Dade County’s law and 53 percent of cases brought under the law were resolved at that early stage, according to Smith.

“There’s a big emphasis on conciliation, because the idea is that these are predominantly low-wage workers and they need to get their money right away. These are people who can’t go to court and wait all that time,” Smith said. By creating a two-stage process and giving employers immunity from the damages provision of the law as long as they resolve a legitimate wage violation in the conciliation stage, these laws give employers an incentive to be responsive to complaints. “There is gonna be that smaller group of completely unscrupulous employers that just completely disappear, often people who never even had a business license to start with,” Smith said. But even if workers for such employers never get made whole under this new process, the law still discourages willful violators from setting up shop in the area.

Wage theft steals more money from American workers each year than the combined haul from every robbery and heist nationwide. The term refers to violations of federal wage and hour protections, and that federal jurisdiction is part of the reason that local protections like the ones just passed in Osceola County are rare. Workers who think they’re being cheated by the boss can file a suit anywhere, regardless of local ordinances, and they have done so at a rapidly increasing clip in recent years. Workers have won court settlements from retail logistics firms, trucking companies, strip clubs, and fast food companies. They’ve also lost one significant case before the Supreme Court, though it only narrowly curtailed the types of employer policies that can be considered wage theft.

But going to court is expensive, in both dollars and time, and Osceola is the most recent place to erect a more worker-friendly system for addressing the complaints. Wage theft laws intended to help workers recoup wages without getting tied up in court have come into effect in Chicago, Houston, and Colorado in recent years.

Lowering the local barriers to recovering stolen wages is a good start, Grayson said, but it does not address the various other ways in which workers have been pitted against one another by recent attacks on union solidarity on the job. “The right to organize has been frustrated and in many cases defeated by business groups. That’s left a disorganized low-wage labor base that can be exploited at will by unscrupulous employers, so the problem increases over time,” Grayson said. Right now, “crime does pay if you’re cheating your employees. And we have to stop that.”

UPDATE

This post initially misidentified Jeanette Smith’s group as South Florida Interstate Worker Justice. It is South Florida Interfaith Worker Justice.

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