BY KENNETH T. WELCH, Pinellas County Commissioner
When you work hard and are not paid what you have earned, that is simply wrong. Yet that scenario plays out thousands of times every year in Pinellas County. The issue is better known as wage theft, and it has become epidemic in some sectors of our economy. In Pinellas County, there were just under 15,000 claims amounting to more than $7.5 million in lost wages from 2012-2014, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. However federal protections for workers is limited, and the state of Florida provides little support. That leaves many Pinellas workers without a practical way to recover their wages, and many are afraid to speak up and request the pay they have rightfully earned.
The County Commission has stepped in to fill that void by creating a countywide wage theft ordinance which provides a practical way for workers to recover lost wages, and sends a message to all employers that we expect workers to be treated fairly. In developing this ordinance, we worked closely with the city of St. Petersburg and Council Member Darden Rice, to ensure compatibility with St. Petersburg’s recently enacted ordinance. We also received support from local law enforcement and the Pinellas Mayors Council. The result of this collaboration is strong, countywide wage theft protection for Pinellas citizens.
The Pinellas ordinance protects employees hired by county-based companies, whether they work in the county or elsewhere, and are owed at least $60 for more than 14 days. Workers have up to one year to file a complaint with the county’s Office of Human Rights, which will notify the employer. The Office of Human Rights may be contacted at (727) 464-4880. If the claim is deemed valid and the employer refuses to pay, the case could be referred to a special magistrate and the employer could be forced to pay three times the amount of back wages owed. In some cases, employers could be liable for $500 fines and up to six months in jail.
During the 2016 budget process, I requested, and the Commission approved $50,000 in funding for the Pinellas County Office of Human Rights to investigate claims of wage theft and to assist residents in receiving the wages they are owed. This important program is funded and operational. It reflects the ideal of equal protection of our laws to everyone regardless of where they come from, or what their job is. A day’s work should provide a day’s pay for everyone.
In this New Year, I’d like to emphasize my goal of working with every stakeholder to move our community forward. Our county team is committed to “Doing Things” each day to benefit every citizen in Pinellas County – and the wage theft ordinance is just one part of making our county a more just and livable community.
Let’s work to continue the progress in 2016 – Happy New Year!