For the second time in the past month, the conservative editorial page at the Tampa Tribune is taking the five Republicans on the Hillsborough County Commission to task for their approach in resisting a proposal offered by Democrat Kevin Beckner on a wage-theft ordinance.
Last week the GOP-led majority of the BOCC fought back efforts to pass a wage-theft ordinance based on a model created in Miami-Dade County in 2010, the first such ordinance of its type in Florida and one still hailed today by advocates as the best, most efficient way of ensuring that workers who are getting shortchanged by their bosses on full pay have a means of getting their cases heard.
One key argument promulgated by Republicans on the board is that by hiring a full-time staffer at $45,000 to handle such claims, they are growing government, which ranks alongside no-new-taxes as a GOP maxim.
The Tribune wrote on Tuesday that, “Being adverse to bloated government programs is a laudable position. But that argument doesn’t ring true in this case.”
Commissioner Victor Crist, who got into a spirited debate with Beckner at last week’s BOCC meeting about which direction to go on a wage-theft proposal, says the Trib has it wrong.
“I think the editorial was flagrantly irresponsible,” he says. “They went off spouting facts without verifying those facts and figures, and were making claims that weren’t substantiated, and they were recommending a direction that hadn’t been truly tested and weren’t considering the fact that the board was very reasonably moving forward with trying to help people.”
Like Beckner, the Trib supports a model built in Miami-Dade County in 2010. Since then, Broward, Alachua and Osceola counties have passed ordinances, with Osecola doing so most recently in March.
Crist says both Beckner and the Tribune are basing their thoughts on a study done by Florida International University Professor Bruce Nissen on wage-theft problems in the state, but Crist says that the county needs to do an independent study before acting.
“We’ve got to do our due diligence, to look at how the study was conducted, what was the rationale, what was the sample base, the dynamics of the study, and validate the study,” Crist says. “Once we’ve done that, then the next step is OK, and if we’ve gotta problem here, they will probably find that we do, how do we best deal with it?”
Palm Beach County doesn’t have an ordinance per se, but only a resolution to deal with the issue — it’s a model favored by big business in the state, and the proposal that the Florida Retail Federation is solidly behind.
But the way it’s been presented, it would actually cost the county more money than the Miami-Dade model.
“It absolutely makes no sense to me because they have yet to articulate to me why this model is better than the Palm Beach model,” says Beckner. “I mean, we’ve demonstrated that the Miami model costs less, it produces more results, it creates less bureaucracy, and it is the best model across the state to show recovered wages lost to wage theft.”
In Palm Beach County, the county has an agreement with the Legal Aid Society to address wage-theft problems. According to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Palm Beach spent $104,000 in 2013 to cover a year of salary and benefits to an attorney there. Meanwhile, Beckner’s proposal for a full-time employee in Hillsborough would be for less than half of that amount — $45,000.
“It’s funny because they want to create less government, but they want to pay more for it, so it makes absolutely no sense, other than the fact that for whatever reason that’s beyond me, that these lobbyists have their attention,” Beckner said, referring to the exchanges that BOCC Chairman Sandy Murman is known to have had with the Retail Federation.
Crist disputes that a full-time employee hired to deal with wage-theft problems would only cost the county $45,000, saying “indirect costs” will make that number higher.
And he says the only board member he knows of who’s been lobbied by the Retail Federation is Murman, and says public employee unions have also been strongly involved with the effort. But he insists that he and his colleagues do want to find a viable solution to the problem.
Commissioner Beckner says another reason to oppose having those workers victimized by wage-theft from working with Bay Area Legal Services is that it could cost them as much in legal fees as the actual amount they were short-changed. Crist agrees that’s a legitimate issue, which is why he says he wants to raise the requirement for those eligible to claim wage-theft to live within 200 percent of poverty. He also wants to eliminate the requirement that Bay Area Legal Services demands that one can’t have an automobile worth more than $5,000.
It’s certainly a problem that needs addressing. Hillsborough County ranked second in the state in a study of the number of wage-theft cases that moved through the U.S. Department of Labor and resulted in an award to the workers. Between 2010 and 2014, there were 12,000 documented cases.