ST. PETERSBURG — The City Council unanimously approved a measure to create a program to intervene in wage disputes, making it the first city in Florida to do so.
Council member Darden Rice has pushed the measure as a way for workers who have not been paid what they are owed, forced to work for free or not paid at all to seek redress without having to hire an attorney and file a lawsuit.
"We're setting a tone of leadership for Tampa Bay," Rice said moments before the vote.
Mayor Rick Kriseman announced earlier this week that he is in favor of the measure. He said he hasn't heard any pushback from local businesses.
"Good businesses want a level playing field," the mayor said at a Tuesday news conference.
The ordinance would allow workers to file a claim with the city for no charge. The city would then notify the employer and seek a resolution. Rice has said she crafted the ordinance to encourage businesses to settle with their employees without proceeding to a hearing officer. If a hearing officer finds in favor of the employee, then the employer will be liable for the back wages plus double that amount in damages.
The ordinance doesn't have much enforcement teeth now, but Rice has said options include publishing the names of offending businesses and barring them from future city contracts.
If an employee loses a claim, no charges will be assessed.
"We might not recuperate 100 percent of the cost," Rice said earlier this week.
A Tampa lawyer who represents employers in wage disputes said a local law would only add an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy to an issue that can be settled easily in the court system.
"There is already plenty of oversight," said Andrew Froman, a partner with the Fisher & Phillips law firm.
Froman predicted that if St. Petersburg passes the ordinance and Pinellas County follows suit as some commissioners have indicated, then similar proposals could pop up in Tampa and Hillsborough County.
"If successful, it'll be over here soon enough," Froman said.
For several years, business groups in Tallahassee have attempted to pass state laws barring cities and counties from enacting "wage-theft" ordinances, but those attempts have failed. No such legislation surfaced this session.
Unions have lobbied for the measure, which is modeled on a Miami-Dade County ordinance that has recovered more than $3 million since 2010.
Legal-aid attorneys say the measure is needed. Wage dispute inquiries occur daily, said John Dubrule, interim executive director for Gulf Coast Legal Services.
The problem is greatest in the service industry and among low-wage workers, especially undocumented workers, Dubrule said.
The courts, as a matter of practice, award attorney fees in wage-dispute cases if workers win their cases. Plenty of firms do brisk business representing workers, Froman said.
"All you need to do is drive 5 miles up U.S. 19 and if you miss all the billboards, you're just not paying attention," Froman said.
The city should have its program running within three months. The cost is estimated at between $75,000 and $90,000. Employers who are found to owe workers will be responsible for administrative costs.
Rice said expenses could decrease if the county adopts a similar ordinance and operations are combined. A federal grant is a possibility, too, she said.
Supporters cheered the vote, the latest in a string of worker-friendly initiatives. Earlier this year, Kriseman announced a $12.50 minimum wage for city workers and paid parental leave.
"If we want to get things done to treat people fairly … this is the City Council that's going to do that," said Jane Walker, executive director of Daystar Life Center.