Wage theft bill in trouble in Senateby Dara Kam | February 20th, 2012
Lawmakers trying to keep counties like Palm Beach from handling “wage theft” claims outside of the courts suffered a setback Monday but a measure barring ordinances similar to one the county is considering is still in play.
The Senate Judiciary Committee spent about five minutes on the proposal, sponsored by Sen. David Simmons, before chairwoman Anitere Flores announced time had run out and adjourned the meeting before a vote was taken.
Flores, a Miami Republican, tried to amend the bill (SB 862) to create an exemption for Miami-Dade County, the only county in the state that has already adopted a wage theft procedure critics, including the Florida Retail Federation and Florida Chamber of Commerce, say is unconstitutional. The Miami-Dade measure is now being challenged in court.
Simmons balked at Flores’ hand-written amendment, which was not adopted. But Flores said later she would work with Simmons to come up with plan satisfying businesses that “don’t want 67 different ways” of handling the wage-theft claims and “employees that might genuinely be cheated out of their wages.
Simmons said his measure would allow counties like Miami-Dade to assist aggrieved workers but keep the process in the courts and creates a statewide “uniform solution” to the wage-theft issue. Counties could provide legal assistance and even help pay workers attorneys fees, Simmons, a lawyer, said.
“We have an independent judiciary to resolve issues…All the assistance Miami-Dade is doing right now for those aggrieved employees still stays in place. They can walk the individual down and they can pay the filing fee fore the individual if they want to. But there cannot be and should not be a system where Dade County is the prosecutor as well as the judge. And that’s what they effectively have done by hiring a hearing officer to hear these cases,” Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, said.
Labor unions and immigrant oppose the legislative measure are trying to get Palm Beach County officials to pass an ordinance mirroring Miami-Dade’s. They say undocumented workers are more vulnerable to unscrupulous employers because they are afraid to report when they are cheated. The local ordinances by-pass the courts and make it too easy for workers to go after employers, critics say.
To help Simmons – and because time is running short – Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher said he will take the bill out of Flores’ committee and sent it to Government Operations Committee, another panel on which Flores sits and which meets next week. That gives the two GOP senators time to work out a deal, Thrasher said.
“It’s anything but a slam-dunk,” Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, said.