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House passes ‘wage theft’ bill banning locals from handling worker pay disputes

Wednesday, February 29th, 2012 by Dara Kam

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.

‘Wage-theft’ bill moving in House

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012 by Dara Kam

Counties like Palm Beach won’t be able to craft non-judicial ways to handle disputes over whether workers have been cheated out of their pay under a measure moving in the Florida House.

The House Judiciary Committee passed a revised “wage theft” proposal (HB 609) this morning with a party-line, 12-6 vote. The GOP-dominated committee thwarted an attempt to grandfather in Miami-Dade, the only county in the state thus far to pass a wage theft ordinance creating an alternate wage dispute system. Palm Beach County commissioners are considering a similar proposal.

The Florida Retail Federation and other business lobbies are pushing the ban on local wage theft ordinances, which they say make it too easy for worker challenges. But labor unions and immigrant advocates oppose the measure. They say undocumented workers are more vulnerable to being cheated out of their wages but are afraid to report their employers and don’t want to end up in court.

The House proposal would allow counties or municipalities to create a system to help workers file the complaints in court that would also include mediation. The measure also limits any wage theft complaints to workers making less than $500,000 and requires that the complaints be filed within a year.

A Senate version stalled this week, but Republican senators are trying to work out their differences as the March 9 end of the legislative session approaches.

Wage theft bill in trouble in Senate

Monday, February 20th, 2012 by Dara Kam

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.

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