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Pinellas commissioners moving forward with wage theft recovery program

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

By tomorrow, Pinellas County will be one step closer to implementing a county-run wage theft recovery program.

Pinellas’ county commissioners are slated to approve a public hearing notice for a proposed wage theft recovery ordinance at their October 20 regular meeting. The actual hearing is scheduled for November 10.

The ball got rolling on July 30, when commissioners gave staff the go-ahead to develop the wage theft ordinance criteria. Since then, the county has allocated $50,000 to the Office of Human Rights’ 2016 budget for administration of the proposed ordinance.

What the ordinance will do, in theory, is allow the county to legally resolve wage theft issues through mediation, conciliation, a hearing before a magistrate or, as a last resort, through the judicial system. Pinellas based the idea on Miami-Dade County’s current wage theft recovery model. The City of St. Petersburg adopted a similar ordinance in April.

Historically, federal and state authorities handle wage theft complaints in Florida. However, the U.S. Department of Labor’s jurisdiction over wage complaints only applies when either an employer’s gross sales are over $500,000, or when interstate commerce is involved.

Legally, the feds can only recover $7.25 per hour for a claimant — the federal minimum wage — no matter how much the claimant is actually owed. (Pinellas’ model won’t have that cap). Meanwhile, Florida quit investigating wage theft complaints altogether over a decade ago.

Under these circumstances, the proverbial working person who can’t afford to spend the time or money it takes to hire a lawyer, go to court, and fight for the 40 hours of overtime pay he or she never received, ends up slipping through the cracks.

And the problem is prevalent in Pinellas County. A 2012 Florida International University study contends that Pinellas County, of 12 counties studied, had the fourth highest incidence of wage theft complaints in all Florida between 2008 and 2011, behind Miami-Dade, Hillsborough and Broward counties.

“We do have a wage theft issue in this county,” said District 7 Commissioner Ken Welch this past July. “The state has not fulfilled [its] role and […] the feds’ jurisdiction is limited. I think [this] compels us to act.”

The Miami-Dade wage theft recovery plan, on which Pinellas based its own recovery program, cost roughly $100,000 to operate between 2013 and 2014. Personnel costs accounted for over $65,000 of that.

Complaints filed in Miami-Dade County during the 2014 calendar year totaled 171, with nearly half of those claims (81) paid out. While the total dollar value of wages disputed in 2014 rang in at $1.3 million, with only $168,000 ultimately being awarded to claimants.

Like the Miami-Dade model, Pinellas County expects operating costs for its version of the program to be around $100,000 a year — though the county hopes to keep it below that mark.

At least one public hearing must first be held before the county adopts any new ordinances.

Devon Crumpacker is a Tampa Bay based writer and reporter for Extensive Enterprises Media. He primarily covers Pinellas County politics for SaintPetersblog.com, but also makes time to write the occasional bar review for FloridaBarTab.com. He lives in St. Petersburg with his fiance, Sydney. To contact, e-mail devon@floridapolitics.com, or visit his Twitter page @DevonCrumpacker.

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