In Florida, the St. Petersburg City Council passed an ordinance, sponsored by council member Darden Rice, that will allow workers to file a wage theft claim with the city without having to hire an attorney or entering the legal system. After receiving the claim, the city is then charged with pursuing the employer. It is expected to take the program three months to be up and running, but it is the first program of its kind in the state.
Speaking after the ordinance’s unanimous passage, Darden Rice said:
“We’re setting a very strong tone for leadership in the Tampa Bay area, and we’re doing it because we recognize the inherent vulnerability of our workforce to wage theft, and we’ve stepped up to address it on the local level when state and federal protections and leadership have failed us…It says a lot about the values of our city.”
Four counties in Florida currently have wage theft ordinances, but no cities had previously. The general framework of the new ordinance is based on Miami-Dade’s wage theft law, which has helped recover nearly $3.8 million for workers since being enacted.
A 2012 study by Florida International University ranked Pinellas County fourth worst in the state behind Miami-Dade, Hillsborough, and Broward. Pinellas County is home to both St. Petersburg and Clearwater. Council member Rice said that roughly 15,000 reports of wage theft were filed in Pinellas, amounting to around $7.5 million in lost wages.
Other features of the ordinance include a clause which states that an employee who loses a claim will not be assessed charges. The ordinance also empowers non-profit social service, religious and community organizations that often serve low-wage earners to assist in feeding tips to the city about violators and to help make constituents aware of the new laws.
Jane Walker, Executive Director of the Daystar Life Center, explained:
“Folks are afraid to report. This gives teeth and courage to those folks who are afraid that the job they have, even if they’re not getting paid fairly, at least it’s a job. This gives them the courage the make the kind of reports that they need to make to make fair for all.”
John Dubrule, COO of Gulf Coast Legal Services, vouched for the necessity of the emboldened effort:
“This is something that has been needed for years and years. This is a pernicious problem. I am so happy that [a wage theft ordinance] is happening in my community and I think that this is going to help…level the playing field because a lot of these people feel powerless. They feel like they have nowhere to go.”
Under the new ordinance employers who lose their case will be liable to pay back wages, plus two times that amount in penalties. Employers who are found guilty of wage theft will also have to pay administrative fees to the city.
AUTHOR: Steve Cooper