CLEARWATER – Taking up the cause of cheated workers, Pinellas County commissioners unanimously passed an ordinance against wage theft on Tuesday, becoming the third Tampa Bay area government to do so.
The ordinance, effective Jan. 1, provides a path for workers to seek government help when employers refuse to pay them what they are owed.
Pinellas joins St. Petersburg and Hillsborough County in taking action against wage theft. The St. Petersburg City Council member passed an ordinance in April, and Hillsborough commissioners approved one in October.
“I am really grateful the county commission has taken this issue so seriously,” Sandra Lythe, CEO of the Intercultural Advocacy Institute in Clearwater, told Pinellas commissioners Tuesday.
Lythe’s group — which helps Hispanic residents, some of them undocumented — often teams with Clearwater police to go after employers who don’t pay workers fairly.
Hillsborough and Pinellas counties ranked second and fourth, respectively, in the number of wage theft incidents in Florida during a 2012 study by Florida International University in Miami. Miami-Dade, which topped the list, in 2013 became the first county to adopt an ordinance to protect workers, which is the model for the ones passed in St. Petersburg and Pinellas County.
Wage theft typically involves people being forced to work “off the clock,” not being paid for overtime work, or not being paid at all. Undocumented and low-wage workers especially are vulnerable. Often they are day laborers, service industry workers in hotels and restaurants, health-care workers, or those in construction and lawn service businesses.
About 15,000 wage theft reports were filed in Pinellas from 2012-14, amounting to about $7.5 million in lost wages, according to city of St. Petersburg figures.
Pinellas Commissioner Ken Welch brought the wage theft issue to the county board after working with St. Petersburg council member Darden Rice, who pushed the ordinance first in the city. The commission allocated $50,000 to administer the program that is similar St. Petersburg’s, which provides staff workers to handle and assist with wage complaints.
Hillsborough enacted a modified version that requires workers and employers go through mediation in the courts administration office of the 13th Judicial Circuit.
The Pinellas ordinance protects employees hired by county-based companies, whether they work in the county or elsewhere, and are owed at least $60 for more than 14 days. Workers have up to one year to file a complaint with the county, which will notify the employer.
If the claim is deemed valid and the employer refuses to pay, the case could be referred to a special magistrate and the employer could be forced to pay three times the amount of back wages owed. In some cases, employers could be liable for $500 fines and up six months in jail.
However, Paul Valenti, director of the county’s Office of Human Rights, told commissioners “a lion’s share” of wage complaints in other counties have been resolved in conciliation with the workers and employers.
Employers also can be liable for wages if they threaten or intimidate an employee for making a wage claim. The ordinance applies primarily to claims against companies with less than $500,000 in annual sales, below the threshold for federal labor law disputes.
Valenti said the ordinance does not prevent local governments from drafting their own wage laws. It also allows governments to exempt themselves, he said, as St. Petersburg and others have done.
That caused some concern among county commissioners, with Commissioner Janet Long calling it “disingenuous.”
“If it’s good enough for everybody else, it should be good enough for the government,” Long said.
Pinellas’ ordinance does not exempt the county. “We thought we should not be excluded; that we should lead by example,” Welch said.
Valenti said Clearwater has expressed some reservations about the ordinance.
He said some of the exemptions may be a result of governments copying the Miami-Dade model, perhaps without intention. Rice said the exemption in St. Petersburg may be left over from Miami-Dade, but she also wondered how the city’s wage theft office could be expected to handle complaints against its own government, if it weren’t exempt.
Bruce Nissen, a professor of labor studies and a researcher at FIU, agreed with county commissioners “as a matter of principle,” but said in his research he has found zero incidents of governments involved in wage theft. “I wouldn’t get into too much of a dither over that,” he said.
John Dubrule, executive director of Gulf Coast Legal Services, praised the commission, and said the countywide ordinance will be more effective than piecemeal efforts that have taken place.
“Today is a watershed day for low-income people and workers in general in Pinellas County,” said Dubrule, whose organization provides legal assistance to those who can’t afford it.
Commissioner Dave Eggers was worried that some small employers may commit wage violations unintentionally if they aren’t aware of the laws. Valenti said the county will work to educate employers about wage theft issues and the new ordinance.
“None of this is designed to be punitive,” he said. “It’s to make sure people get paid.”