Photo credit: Monivette Cordeiro
From The Nation:
by Spencer Woodman
n March of 2014, a nail-salon worker in Florida filed a complaint against her boss with the office of the state’s Republican attorney general, Pam Bondi. The salon worker, who wished to remain anonymous in this article for fear of retaliation by her former employer, told me that she had started at the salon the previous November and that, in addition to a variety of workplace abuses, her boss refused to pay his employees the state’s minimum wage, which was then $7.93 an hour.
In her complaint to Bondi’s office, the worker described an alarming set of alleged offenses. “They make us work a minimum of 40 hrs a week and sometimes remove our rights for breaks, yet only pay straight commission,” said the worker’s complaint, which was submitted to Bondi’s office by e-mail. “There are weeks where some of us have had to work 45 hrs+ and only had a check for $10.00—$50.00. [T]hey threaten if we even ask about minimum wage.” The complaint added that “many of the girls are scared to say the wrong thing yet dont have enough money to feed their families.”
The salon employee, who, along with her husband, was working to raise an autistic child, hoped that Bondi’s office would help her get the money that she was owed for her months of salon work. But the worker heard nothing from Bondi’s office in response to the complaint, she said, even after multiple follow-ups. “I made two or three calls, and after a few months passed, I assumed they weren’t going to do anything,” the worker told me, “so I dropped it.”
To the salon worker—who estimated she was owed some $2,000 in back wages for several months of work—Florida’s top cop for labor violations appeared to be off duty.
In most states, the attorney general would not be the first place a desperate worker might turn, but in Florida, the office is both the first and last line of defense for exploited workers. After Jeb Bush dismantled Florida’s Department of Labor in the early 2000s—he justified it as a cost-saving measure—the Republicans in the state named the attorney general’s office as the main government agency responsible for enforcing the state’s minimum wage. But what the worker did not know is that Pam Bondi is a politician who has voiced fierce opposition to strong minimum-wage laws and has close ties to organizations that have aggressively lobbied against laws to protect workers from theft.
In recent months, Bondi has repeatedly made national headlines. In March, she became one of the highest-profile politicians to endorse Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Bondi’s endorsement tipped off allegations that she had, in 2013, declined to sue Trump University for fraudulent business practices after personally soliciting and securing a hefty political contribution from Trump himself. More recently, in the wake of the mass shooting at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, Bondi has been on the defensive about her office’s anti-gay posture throughout her tenure as attorney general.
Yet, while Bondi has busied herself with courting Republican donors and waging a costly fight against marriage equality, she has apparently paid less attention to low-wage workers in the state seeking help from her office. In interviews, workers who went to her office seeking redress for having allegedly lost much-needed pay to their employers said Bondi’s office did little to nothing to help recover their wages. And Bondi’s own track record supports these claims. Despite federal data showing that employers in Florida cheat their workers out of millions of dollars a year, Bondi’s office—and by extension, the entire state of Florida—has not brought a single formal enforcement action against an employer in the state since in 2011.
According to the records obtained by The Nation, workers have filed more than three dozen complaints with Bondi’s office during the past two years. The grievances range from employees expressing concern that their bosses are getting away with skimming a few cents an hour off their minimum-wage paychecks—to workers flagging a variety of severe workplace abuses. “Please don’t let anyone else go through what i endured,” said one complaint, in which a worker alleged sexual harassment and highly unsanitary conditions in a restaurant kitchen; she also believed her co-workers were being underpaid. “It was awful.”
Despite such complaints, Bondi’s public comments have given the impression that wage theft in Florida is not a problem in need of robust solutions. In a statement provided to me in February for a separate article—Bondi’s office did not respond to more than a dozen requests for comment on this story—a spokesperson for the office seemed to suggest that wage theft is a minor issue, with the bulk of claims coming from workers being paid mere cents below the minimum wage. And most, the spokesperson suggested, can simply be fixed by giving employers reminders to comply with the law.
“The Attorney General’s Office enforces the state minimum wage law; however, our office has generally not needed to file formal enforcement actions in minimum wage law violation cases,” the Bondi spokesperson told me in an e-mail, “because we have had success in getting companies to voluntarily comply once they are alerted to differences between state and federal law provisions on the minimum wage.”
Many other states around the country routinely investigate employers suspected of wage violations, drawing a sharp contrast to Florida’s near-absence of enforcement. New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, for instance, assumed office the same year as Bondi and has already pursued a number of high-profile wage-and-hour investigations that have yielded some $21 million dollars in back pay for workers in New York State, which has a smaller population than Florida and also has an active state Department of Labor that routinely pursues its own wage-and-hour claims. Most recently, Schneiderman’s office filed a lawsuit against Domino’s, which allegedly shortchanged its workforce by hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Bondi’s office, in comparison, has given her state a significantly divergent distinction. Today Florida is by far the largest state in the country that does not meaningfully enforce its minimum-wage laws.
* * *
In the absence of state-level enforcement, some workers grappling with unpaid wages do have some recourse: They can seek help from the Florida offices of the US Department of Labor, which employs a handful of investigators in the state. However, the federal agency sometimes lacks jurisdiction over wage claims that fall under state law. And the investigators employed by the federal agency are said to be stretched thin—each covering some one million workers in the state, according to a 2010 report.
Under normal circumstances, a state department of labor helps ease and complement the workload of the federal agency, according to Millie Herrera, who worked as the US Department of Labor’s Southeast Regional Representative for 18 months during Bondi’s early tenure. But, of course, Florida lost that safety net years ago.
Herrera describes the conditions surrounding Florida’s minimum-wage laws as a “perfect storm” in which the shortage of resources at the federal agency has combined with Florida’s lack of interest in enforcing the state’s minimum wage to create an environment of lawlessness for employers in the state. A Wild West of labor law, Herrera says, allows companies that illegally underpay workers to undercut law-abiding employers, causing a systemic tilt toward wage theft.
“If they don’t get caught, which is the majority, they continue doing it, and they base their business model on a flawed system of paying the employees as little as possible and reaping the benefits of it,” says Herrera, who finished her stint at the DOL in mid-2013. “Our economy is based on these industries that are notorious for cheating workers out of their wages: service, tourism, farming, and construction.”
Herrera recalls that during her time at the US Department of Labor’s Miami office, a business owner in the Tampa area approached her to complain that he simply couldn’t keep up with the businesses that paid below minimum wage. “He couldn’t compete: The other guys were paying their employees off the books and they were paying them less,” Herrera said, adding that she later heard that the employer ultimately went out of business.
Read more from The Nation.