House passes ‘wage theft’ bill banning locals from handling worker pay disputesby Dara Kam | February 29th, 2012
Counties including Palm Beach would be barred from passing ordinances establishing a way for workers and employers to handle wage disputes out of court under a measure approved by the House along a party-line vote.
The House also shot down an effort to grandfather in Miami-Dade County, the only county in the state that now has a wage theft ordinance that established an out-of-court process to help workers go after bosses they say cheated them out of their pay. That could doom its chances in the Senate, where a similar proposal stalled without a provision allowing Miami-Dade to keep its non-judicial system.
Labor unions and immigrant groups, who oppose the legislation, are pushing Palm Beach County commissioners to approve an ordinance Miami-Dade’s, now being challenged in court. They say undocumented workers in low-paying jobs are vulnerable to unscrupulous employers and loathe to take them to court to recoup uncompensated wages.
The Florida Retail Federation and other business lobbies backing the measure (HB 609) because, they say, the ordinance allows workers to by-pass the courts, thereby making it too easy for workers to accuse employers of wrongdoing. The measure would also bar workers from filing a class action lawsuit against an employee they say is stealing their pay.
Democrats argued that the bill would harm the state’s poorest workers at a time when jobs are scarce and the number of low-paid workers is growing. Critics of the proposal also say it would make it harder for victims of wage theft to seek redress in court by eliminating the right to a jury trial and limiting the amount of damages to the amount of unpaid wages.
“We must give these workers back those wages that are due to them. If we have an employer who is constantly ripping off his employees this bill will prohibit the employees from doing a class action suit.
Theft is theft,” said Rep. Barbara Watson, D-Miami Gardens, before the 77-38 vote approving the bill.
But supporters of the measure, including Senate sponsor David Simmons, says the Florida constitution prohibits any government agency, including counties, from creating a court.
The proposal would allow counties to assist aggrieved workers by providing legal assistance and even helping to pay for attorneys’ fees but would keep the process in the courts.