Jennifer didn’t start off working for free but that’s how it ended up. She worked as a server for an unscrupulous restaurant owner who said he would pay her one thing and ended up paying her almost nothing. As a single mother, she was dependent on what little he did pay her (he even stole her tips) and by the time she found new employment, was forced to sell her laptop, TV and even her son’s gaming system to pay the rent.
Most victims think it will never happen to them, until it does. When it does happen, they find that there is little recourse other than taking the employer to court or starting a lengthy Federal investigation through the Department of Labor.
Wage theft occurs when employees do not receive the wages to which they are legally entitled. There are many ways that wage theft occurs but a few of the most common are: paying less than minimum wage; being required to work through breaks; and failing to pay overtime or requiring employees to work “off the clock.”
On May 20th, Hillsborough County Commission will consider a draft Wage Recovery Ordinance modeled on the extremely successful Miami-Dade ordinance. Initiated by Commissioner Kevin Beckner, the draft ordinance respects both the workers and businesses with a focus on conciliation, which creates a faster, less expensive and more efficient process. Like Miami-Dade’s ordinance, Hillsborough County’s proposed ordinance creates a separate, less formal process that still has teeth but is neither dependent on nor burdensome to the existing legal system. Since Miami-Dade’s ordinance went into effect in 2010, nearly 3 million dollars in lost wages have been recovered.
The practice is rampant in Florida where lower wage industries abound (like restaurant, lodging, retail, agriculture and construction). According to the report, Wage Theft: An Economic Drain on Florida – How Millions of Dollars are Stolen from Florida’s Workforce,[i] Florida’s six most populous counties accounted for the vast majority of wage theft cases. Miami-Dade was the worst, followed by Hillsborough, Broward, Pinellas, Palm Beach and Orange counties.
John was hired to drive a bus for a private charter school. As a contractor, he receives no benefits and pays all of his federal income tax obligations himself. However, from time to time, his employer withholds money for his check for “tax purposes.”
Unfortunately, the amount stolen does not yet reach the threshold where he can file with the Department of Labor (and when he does, he will have to wait months before the process even begins). His only other option is to take his employer to court but that is an expensive as well as lengthy process. He needs his money now, not next year.
Those damaged by wage theft practices include, of course, the workers and their families. However, employers who abide by the rules, but who are located within the same industries as those who do not, are also damaged by the practice because they are put at a competitive disadvantage in the marketplace compared to employers who use wage theft as part of their business model in order to lower their costs.
Local communities are also damaged by wage theft. Money paid appropriately to workers – especially lower wage workers – is immediately re-circulated in the local economy through purchases. If lower wage workers are not paid appropriately, they can become dependent on public assistance, which increases the community’s share of the burden.
Since the state legislature has failed to deal with the issue in a substantive way, local ordinances are the only way to protect workers and businesses. Wage Recovery ordinances have been passed in Alachua, Broward, Miami-Dade and Osceola counties and proposed for Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. Protecting working Floridians and their families should be the state legislature’s first priority. In the meantime, counties will find ways to protect workers and level the playing field for businesses.
[i] See Cynthia S. Hernandez and Carol Stepick, Wage Theft: An Economic Drain on Florida – How Millions of Dollars are Stolen from Florida’s Workforce.