Tampa Bay Times: Legislature's inaction on wage theft problem drives local ordinances

Ian Pajer-Rogers |

photo: Wisconsin Jobs Now

From the Tampa Bay Times:

by Tony Marrero

Holding a smooth wooden cane in one hand and rubbing his scarred knee with the other, Jorge Lopez-Serra sat at a kitchen table covered with unpaid bills.

Lopez-Serra, 45, recently took a part-time job with a cleaning company to sock away money for knee surgery and was assigned to a diner in St. Petersburg and an American Legion Hall in Clearwater. He said the company never paid the final $700 he was owed.

Lopez-Serra has since had his surgery and is recovering while on short-term disability from his job as a machine operator. He's only bringing in 70 percent of his salary. His wife, Rose Rodriguez, said the couple has struggled to make their truck payment.

"That was money we needed and still need," Rodriguez said.

Each year, more than 3,000 wage violation allegations like Lopez-Serra's are reported to the U.S. Department of Labor's Florida office. The state's six most populous counties accounted for the vast majority of cases, with Hillsborough and Pinellas coming in second and third only behind Miami-Dade County.

Some states have passed laws to crack down on employers who try to cheat workers out of pay. But in Florida, the problem has received scant attention from a state Legislature that sides with probusiness groups that say wage left laws put onerous burdens on their companies.

So city and county officials are following the lead of Miami-Dade, which in 2010 became the first in the state to pass a local ordinance to give workers recourse in wage theft disputes. The process has recovered millions for workers, so the city of St. Petersburg passed a nearly identical ordinance. Pinellas and Hillsborough are drafting theirs, cribbing all or parts of Miami-Dade's model.

"It's the Legislature's lack of action that's really forced us to go down this avenue," said Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner.

• • •

Wage theft can take many forms, such as forcing a worker to stay late without compensation for that time, stealing tips or intentionally and improperly classifying an employee as a contractor. It often affects low-income workers in construction, agriculture and service industries like restaurants and hotels.

Wage theft data in Florida are mostly limited to violations reported to the U.S. Department of Labor, but those numbers represent the tip of a very large iceberg, said Bruce Nissen, a professor of labor studies at Florida International University.

Read the full article from the Tampa Bay Times.