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With emotions flaring, Hillsborough County Commission advances potential wage theft ordinance

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

On the face of it, it didn’t look like a very close comparison as the Hillsborough County Commission met on Wednesday to review what type of system they’d like to model a policy shift to try to combat wage-theft in the county, rated in a recent report as the second worst in the entire state.

Speaking via Skype from South Florida, Jeanette Smith, executive director of South Florida Interfaith Worker Justice, went through a basic comparison of two of the biggest counties that have implemented a system to contend with wage theft in Florida — Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.

On costs to the county, Miami-Dade County spent $55,000 last year, Palm Beach $125,000 (via a grant to the Legal Aid Society). In terms of successful resolutions of the problem, there were 232 cases successfully resolved in Miami that resulted in workers receiving a combined $800,000 in lost wages; in Palm Beach, there were 85 cases resolved bringing back $100,000; And as far a return on investment, Miami Dade was at 12 percent, Palm Beach County at less than one percent.

“There’s no real comparison between the two,” said Bruce Nissen, the author of a Florida International University study examining the issue in Florida, which showed that Hillsborough ranked only behind Miami-Dade in the documented cases of wage theft in the Sunshine State. “If you’re looking for efficient government, I think there’s no question, go with the Miami-Dade model.”

Yet for the second consecutive board meeting, several of the Republican members of the commission did the exact opposite, supporting their love for a Palm Beach County version that on its face appears to favor businesses and not the workers who aren’t receiving a full paycheck.

The Miami-Dade model is what Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner brought forward last month. The plan that he favors would create a full-time position at $45,000 to deal with such claims. That’s a considerably less cost than the $125,000 that Palm Beach pays out to a third-party to resolve.

However, some commissioners continue to express concerns that hiring one staffer would create a situation of expanded government. “My concern is we do grow departments out of control, that’s what got this county in trouble during the Great Recession,” said Commissioner Al Higginbotham.

That prompted Commissioner Les Miller to question everything.

“I’m not a mathematician, but it appears to me that $125,000 is more than $45,000,” he said. “That makes no sense to me,” adding that he couldn’t support any plan based on the Palm Beach model.

After the board pooh-poohed the Miami Dade ordinance last month, the conservative Tampa Tribune editorial board rebuked them, writing that their objections were “badly misplaced.”

To Commissioner Beckner, it was obvious to him that the board wasn’t following the people, the editorial boards, or perhaps even their own inner compass, but the lobbying efforts of the Florida Retail Federation, the statewide business group that has gone all out in Tallahassee and in other jurisdictions to fight against a Miami-Dade-type ordinance. And he lashed out at his colleagues for thinking that way, specifically Victor Crist.

“I have heard that this board wants to do something,” Beckner said. “But you’re saying one thing and you’re not taking an action on another. If you really wanted to do something, and you cared about these people, why would you adopt a model that has been shown to be less effective? Why would you not adopt a model that is shown to recover more for people that you say you care about the most? I hope it is the people that you’re passionate about, and not the special lobbyists who have been lobbying for this Palm Beach model across the state.”

Beckner added that he did agree with Crist’s suggestion to expand the employees eligible to examine their wages being unfairly distributed to include independent contractors, but also said any support for the Palm Beach model was unacceptable.

Clearly irked, Crist said that it was important for the county to have its own staff review the differences between the Miami and Palm Beach plans, and said that Hillsborough should devise its own way to solve the problem, a hybrid perhaps of the other plans.

But then he laid into Beckner, at times in personal terms, accusing him of pure grandstanding for his own political aggrandizement.

“Let’s be rationale,” he said, taking a deep breath. “Let’s get beyond the emotions. And it is very clear that in order to protect the people who are being cheated out of their rightful earnings, that something has to be done here. What we’re arguing over is which way to go. But if you dig your heels in, if you remain rigid and unflexible (sic) and refusing to listen to ideas and be open-minded, you’re going to walk away with nothing for those people. You’re putting them and their families in jeopardy because you want to make a political soapbox out of this. And that is not legislative. That is not leadership. Leadership is listening, as well as speaking. “

Crist said that if Beckner continued to go about it in such a combative way, “You will get the ink and publicity, yes, which is what you may want, but you will get nothing for those people. Nothing! And that’s unacceptable. I don’t want to leave here with nothing…and that means building consensus.”

A moment later, Crist went further, saying that he was the true champion of the working people. “I”m going to fight for what they need, and I’m going to make sure you get it!” he said, looking out at the audience.

Looking back at Beckner, he said the Democrat could only deliver two votes to the people. “You deliver nothing to these people but talk.”

Commission Chair Sandy Murman then told the audience that despite what some emails were telling her, she could relate to those who have been ripped off by their bosses. “Believe me, I’ve been cheated out of wages,” she insisted. “We want to help you, and I think our message today is, we want to help.”

The board then voted for a proposal to have county staff to bring back a wage-theft resolution that would include people making 200 percent of poverty, that includes independent contractors and small businesses and includes mediation as a first resolve of a problem.

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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