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St. Pete, Pinellas consider wage theft ordinances

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

It won’t come up for a vote until March 26, but St. Pete City Council member Darden Rice is confident a wage theft ordinance will pass it’s first stop in the committee of the whole.

“It will probably be a couple of meetings before it formally gets approved,” she said. “But we’ll probably be making some significant motion to move this ahead.”

During a meeting last month Rice proposed a wage theft ordinance that would set a citywide procedure for employees to lodge complaints and launch investigations into employers who aren’t paying them all of the wages they’re due.

Wage theft can include not paying a worker for all of the hours they worked, requiring employees to come to work early, but not clock in right away or working off the clock. It can be uncompensated overtime or even a wage below the state’s minimum or less than the employee was supposed to earn.

The average wage theft claim in Pinellas County is estimated at about $500. Some 15,000 employees were affected and that’s just those who reported it.

Many employees opt not to report wage theft because they think they’ll need an attorney they can’t afford or are afraid of retaliation by their employer or, worse, termination.

Rice’s ordinance is modeled on one from Miami-Dade County that has already been challenged and upheld in court.

“The ordinance is written so well, we take into consideration a lot of different scenarios – let’s say a victim of wage theft goes to the city to file a report and seek mediation but in the meanwhile they also contact the federal Department of Labor or becomes a part of a class action lawsuit – we would simply drop [our case,]” Rice said.

And Rice’s ordinance goes one step further in adding a zero-tolerance clause for employers who may retaliate against employers accused of wage theft.

There are already measures in place for employees to report wage theft, but those options aren’t widely known by common employees and offices handling claims are understaffed.

Rice said it’s also important to have a local measure in place to ensure the state doesn’t beat the city to the punch.

“That may require a person to go to their employee first,” Rice said referring to previous proposals for wage theft laws at the state level.

Requiring an employee to approach an employer before filing a claim of wage theft may seem to make sense – what if the error were just a simple miscalculation or oversight? However, in cases where bad actors are repeatedly underpaying employees, requiring them to go to their boss first only increases fear and possibility of retaliation.

So Rice wants to preempt any action at the state level while they are in session this year. The timeline on her ordinance is tight, but it could likely get passed before the 60-day session that just started Tuesday wraps up.

Rice is also working with Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch on a countywide ordinance that would piggyback on St. Pete’s effort.

“I think it fits right in with what we’re trying to do in terms of poverty reduction,” Welch said of possibly implementing a county ordinance.

He said the county is in its research phase. He’s asked staff to investigate the Miami-Dade ordinance and look at whether or not such a plan would work in Pinellas. He’s also working closely with Rice on her efforts.

“We would build on what they create,” Welch said.

When an ordinance comes up at the county level, Welch said he doesn’t see too much of a challenge.

Pinellas County ranked fourth worst in terms of wage theft incidents in a recent study. Hillsborough County was second worst. Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner is bringing up a wage theft ordinance with his colleagues during their meeting this week.

“I think it’s a trend that we’re seeing around the nation,” Welch said. “It makes you wonder why we didn’t look at this earlier.”

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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