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Pinellas County Commission gives initial nod to wage theft ordinance

Published Jul. 31, 2015

CLEARWATER — Pinellas County is on track to give local workers recourse in disputes with employers they accuse of cheating them out of pay.

A unanimous Pinellas County Commission agreed Thursday to draft a wage theft ordinance modeled after a one in Miami-Dade County, which in 2010 was the first local government in the state to pass such a measure.

"We do have a wage theft issue in this county, and because the state has not fulfilled their role and because the federal jurisdiction is limited, it compels us to act," said Commissioner Ken Welch, who led the charge for the ordinance.

Wage theft, or wage disputes, occurs when employers withhold the earnings or benefits of employees. It often affects low-income workers, particularly in service industries such as restaurants and hotels, and in construction.

Commissioners cited a report by Florida International University that showed Pinellas, of 12 Florida counties studied, had the third-highest number of wage theft cases between 2012 and 2014. Hillsborough County, which is drafting its own ordinance, was second on the list of 12 counties, with more than $10.5 million in recovered wages.

The report notes that many more cases go unreported or unresolved because the federal government regulates companies with more than $500,000 in gross annual sales. The state of Florida has no agency to investigate wage theft cases.

Under the Miami-Dade model, a worker files a complaint with county government, which in turn notifies the employer and tries to broker an agreement between the employer and worker. If that conciliation process fails, the case goes to an administrative hearing, and a hearing officer decides if there is sufficient evidence to support the worker's claim. Broward, Alachua and Osceola counties have adopted similar ordinances. So did the city of St. Petersburg, becoming the first city in the state to pass a wage theft measure in April.

The county's Office of Human Rights would be the go-between between complainants and business. The ordinance will likely be countywide, meaning it would apply to the 24 cities unless they opt out. The county staff estimated the annual administrative costs at $50,000 to $100,000.

No one spoke against the ordinance. Among several speakers who supported the measure — and the Miami-Dade model in particular — was John Dubrule, executive director for Gulfcoast Legal Services.

"This is a way to facilitate something quickly for workers," Dubrule said. "A lot of these people need these wages to live."

Hillsborough County may chart its own path that combines elements of methods used in other Florida counties, though it has been a hotly debated issue there.

Commissioner Kevin Beckner, a Democrat, has lobbied hard to adopt the Miami-Dade model and have the county mediate disputes between workers and employers. However, the Republican-controlled commission is wary of committing any county staff and resources to government mediation.

Instead, Hillsborough is likely to look at a hybrid model that would outsource the work to Bay Area Legal Services but also guarantee victims of wage theft could get swift action through mediation instead of a long, drawn-out lawsuit. It could come up for a vote next month.

Times staff writer Steve Contorno contributed to this report. Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @tmarrerotimes.