CLEARWATER — Workers in Pinellas County will have another avenue for collecting unpaid wages from employers with the County Commission's passage of a wage theft ordinance.
The law, unanimously passed Tuesday to take effect Jan. 1, will allow workers to file a claim at no cost with the county's Office of Human Rights, which will serve a complaint to the employer and attempt to resolve the issue in mediation.
If the office determines a complaint qualifies as wage theft and an employer does not pay up, the county will appoint a special magistrate, who can order restitution equal to three times the amount of back wages.
"Employers sometimes will go to great lengths not to pay a person," Sandra Lyth, CEO of the Intercultural Advocacy Institute, said Tuesday, thanking the commission for its ordinance. "People need the low-cost access to complain about their wages and know something will be done."
Pinellas County's crackdown on wage theft follows the passage of similar local government ordinances throughout Florida in the absence of state protections.
Miami-Dade County became the first government in the state to pass a local wage theft law in 2010, and Hillsborough County created a similar ordinance last month.
Pinellas County's ordinance was largely based on the law passed by the city of St. Petersburg in April, according to Paul Valenti, director of the county's Office of Human Rights.
A major difference, however, is that St. Petersburg exempted itself as an employer from being subjected to the law. County commissioners Tuesday agreed they should have to follow the same law they are imposing on local employers.
"It seems a bit disingenuous to me that a government body would pass an ordinance like this and then exempt themselves from it," Commissioner Janet Long said.
Although the ordinance is countywide, County Attorney James Bennett said each of Pinellas' 24 municipalities will be able to opt out, making the ordinance not applicable to the city as an employer. Or cities can opt out entirely, exempting all employers within their jurisdiction.
Commissioner Ken Welch, who spearheaded the effort to draft the policy, said he heard unanimous support on the ordinance from local governments at a recent Mayor's Council of Pinellas County meeting, with the only reservations coming from Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos.
Cretekos, in a phone interview Tuesday, said that city employees are already afforded union protection in wage theft disputes and that a county ordinance may "cause difficulties within the city because we already have provisions to prevent things like that."
A study this year by Florida International University showed wage theft continues to be a rampant problem in the United States, and particularly in Florida.
Employers can commit wage theft by paying less than minimum wage, failing to pay an employee for overtime, refusing to issue final paychecks before going out of business or other forms of denying pay.
There were 9,109 cases of wage theft in Florida between September 2008 and January 2011, with $28 million in recovered wages, according to the FIU study. Employers in Pinellas made the county the fourth-worst offender in the state, with 3,615 cases and $1.8 million recovered for employees.
There is no mechanism in place at the state level to investigate wage theft claims, and the Florida attorney general has never brought a civil action on employers paying less than minimum wage, the report states.
Valenti said his office's assistance to cheated employees will be a valuable resource, given that complaints filed on a federal level can take years to settle.
On Tuesday, Gulfcoast Legal Services executive director John Dubrule said the county ordinance is a needed tool to seek justice, especially for low-wage workers who disproportionately experience wage theft.
"I think today is a watershed day for rights of low-income people and workers in general here in Pinellas County," he said. "We see people who are living week to week, and they are coming in telling us they've been fired and they can't get their wages for the past two weeks, and they don't know what to do."
Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.