The reflection of a county-run wage theft recovery program is beginning to twinkle in the collective eye of Pinellas County’s Board of Commissioners. The seven-member group gave staff the go-ahead to develop the program’s criteria at its July 30 work session.
The program will be designed by the Office of Human Rights, while the Board will provide feedback and direction throughout the process. It will revolve around a yet-to-be-established ordinance prohibiting wage theft.
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 invoved.
Legally, the feds can only recover $7.25 per hour for a claimant, no matter how much the claimant is actually owed. 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. “The state has not fulfilled their 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.
Most likely, the money used to pay for the program in its inaugural year will come from either the county’s general fund or reserve fund. 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.
The next work session for the Board of County Commissioners is on August 11.