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Hillsborough commissioners reach compromise on wage theft plan

TAMPA — The Republican-controlled Hillsborough County Commission voted Wednesday to move forward with a plan to help victims of wage theft recover lost income through a hybrid model that stresses mediation.

The plan — a compromise between models in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties — would rely on an administrative hearing process in state court to resolve contested claims. If mediation is unsuccessful, the county would provide claimants representation through Bay Area Legal Services, a nonprofit provider.

County staff projected the new system could see about 250 cases annually. Of those, about 18 percent, or 45 cases, would fail mediation and require further action.

Democratic Commissioner Kevin Beckner championed the issue throughout 2015 and pushed for the county to mimic the Miami-Dade model, which relies on county staff to handle all intake and mediation. In July, the Pinellas County Commission unanimously agreed to draft a similar wage theft ordinance.

However, Hillsborough commissioners were concerned about the county taking on the new responsibility and expanding government. Instead, several pushed for evaluating the Palm Beach model, in which wage disputes would remain in the court system and victims would need to take legal action against their employers.

Studies show Hillsborough is one of the worst counties in Florida for wage theft. These disputes occur when employers withhold earnings or benefits from employees, whether by forcing a worker to stay late, stealing tips or intentionally misclassifying an employee as a contractor. Many cases involve service or construction jobs and affect low-income workers.

Commissioners voted 6-1, with Al Higginbotham opposing, to move forward with the mediation services model. A public hearing on the ordinance will be scheduled for the next board meeting Oct. 21.

"This is going along a lot better than I thought it was going to go," Commissioner Sandy Murman said. "I'll be honest with you, I kind of wish we were treading into this a little more slowly and just doing the Palm Beach model and trying it out to see how it goes."

However, Murman voted to support the hybrid mediation services model, which she said intrigued her and had the lowest cost of the three.

"Even though we're not at the original conclusion going with the Miami-Dade model," Beckner said, "I think we've come up with a really great model."

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3401. Follow @cljohnst.

Hillsborough commissioners reach compromise on wage theft plan 10/07/15 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 7, 2015 8:46pm]
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