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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Hold employers accountable for wage theft

Federal law requires that employers pay employees for the time they work, but in Clearwater some employers are refusing to pay undocumented immigrants after they have already worked the hours. That's wrong, no matter what the immigration status is of employees, and the city of Clearwater should take action to make it harder for employers to dodge the law.

Tampa Bay Times staff writer Laura Morel reported that in the last three months, Clearwater police have received nearly a dozen reports of wage theft by employers, with amounts ranging from $400 to $1,200. Those reports probably under-represent the size of the problem, since undocumented immigrants are often reluctant to report crimes to police.

Wage theft, which usually targets low-wage workers, has been a national problem for several years, and not just for undocumented workers. Last fall, a study by the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank, stated, "The country suffers an epidemic of wage theft, as large numbers of employers violate minimum-wage, overtime, and other wage and hour laws with virtual impunity."

The issue in Clearwater is a subset of that broader one, with employers taking advantage of undocumented workers' tendency to keep quiet. But it is just as wrong.

The accused employers are actually breaking at least two laws. It is illegal to hire undocumented workers; employers can be fined up to $16,000 per employee. But if they deny the workers their pay, they can be charged with grand theft and be reported to the Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. Department of Labor for labor law violations.

Undocumented workers often take the hot, dirty and low-wage jobs that employers say American workers aren't eager to do. When employers deny those workers the pay they've earned, they are using them for profit and buying their silence with threats of deportation. These employers also rob governments of the revenue that would come from payroll and other taxes on those wages.

The Clearwater Police Department's Hispanic outreach officer, Raymond Croze, tries to persuade accused employers to hand over the money they owe rather than arresting them for a crime. Under that scenario, the worker gets paid but the employer gets off without punishment.

Several Florida counties have approved local wage theft ordinances that grant the victims a hearing. In Miami-Dade County, employers found guilty must pay the worker three times the amount owed. The Clearwater City Council should consider a similar ordinance that would punish guilty employers and hold them publicly accountable for stealing workers' hard-earned cash.

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