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  1. Florida

Latvala will try again to make wage theft a crime

Sen. Jack Latvala says he will try again next session to make it a crime not to pay an employee.

As more local governments pass local wage theft ordinances, the pressure grows on the Legislature to take some kind of action, the Clearwater Republican said. (Read more on the rise of local ordinances here.)

"I think my approach is the best way," he said. "Just make it a crime. We have a court system that handles crimes. We just have to give the sheriff departments and police and state attorney a clear path to go after these people."

At least five counties have passed local ordinances to give workers recourse go after employers who haven't paid them what they're rightly owed, and now Pinellas and Hillsborough are drafting their own ordinances. The Pinellas ordinance will be modeled after one in Miami-Dade, where the county first tries to mediate an agreement before holding an administrative hearing. A hearing officer who finds evidence to support a worker's claim orders the employer to pay a sum equal to three times the amount of the unpaid wages, plus administrative costs.

Last year, Latvala filed a bill that would make it a third degree felony to "knowingly procure labor from any person with an intent to defraud or deceive such person, bit died in committee. Pro-business groups such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Florida Retail Federation had concerns about adding a criminal penalty. Employees who are paid less than the minimum wage can bring a civil action against an employer or make a complaint to the Florida attorney general.

"Maybe I'll push a little harder since this is hitting closer to home," Latvala said, referring to Pinellas' push to pass an ordinance.

Pro-business groups have opposed what they call a patchwork of local ordinances that would be a burden to employers, especially small companies. Since Miami-Dade passed its ordinance in 2010, lawmakers have tried unsuccessfully to preempt local governments from passing their own laws.

Latvala agrees there should be a more standardized approach to wage theft but said he's generally opposed to preempting local governments.

"If we're preempting for something that's cosmetic and it doesn't have any teeth, I'm not going to support it," he said. "If we're preempting for something that has teeth, then perhaps I would."

In 2000, the Legislature dismantled the Florida Labor and Employment Security, which handled wage theft complaints. Asked if he would consider setting aside funding for the state to revive that role, he called that "a potential answer."