St. Petersburg's wage-theft program has slow start, needs tweaks
ST. PETERSBURG — The city's wage theft program is a year old. So far, it’s been a pretty quiet debut.
The tally? St. Petersburg received 36 complaints that led to $36,562 in wage claims being paid to employees who work within city limits.
But weak enforcement tools have led to only $12,451 — out of $64,097 awarded — being collected from businesses that a hearing officer found have stolen wages from workers. The rest was brought in through negotiated settlements.
The low number worried some council members who questioned whether the program, slated to receive $127,000 in this year's budget, was worth the cost.
“It seems like a lot of money to me,” said council member Ed Montanari at a City Council commitee meeting Thursday.
The county, which launched its own wage-theft office this year, has had similar results. Another council member, Jim Kennedy, said that he would prefer the city and county merge their offices.
Council member Darden Rice said that was the ultimate goal, but the city should toughen its ordinance first,
“We’re the ones driving this," Rice said. "It would be helpful if we came up with our own solutions.”
Some of those solutions were presented by Eve Epstein, who runs the city’s wage theft program.
She suggested toughening enforcement mechanisms such as suspending business licences of offending businesses and requiring mandatory postings to raise awareneess about the program.
The goal is to prompt businesses to resolve disputes with their employees, she said.
“I see this as a negotiation tool. It gets people to settle. It gets people to come to the table,”Epstein said.
The City Council’s Public Services and Infrastructure Committee agreed to discuss the issue further at future meetings.
Rice, who championed the measure in council last year, counseled patience. A public outreach campaing is being readied. Other Florida metros also had slow starts, notably Miami-Dade, the state's largest program and the model for St. Petersburg.
“It’s the first year,” Rice said.