Steps for the St. Pete’s Wage Theft Protection Program

Darden Rice, Vice Chair of St. Pete City Council

 

BY DARDEN RICE, Vice Chair of St. Pete City Council

ST. PETERSBURG – St. Petersburg’s Wage Theft Prevention Program has been underway for the past year. “Wage theft” is a broad term that includes any type of non-payment or underpayment by an employer. It can take the form of loss of overtime, illegal tip practices, being paid less than minimum wage and independent contractor misclassification.

According to a study conducted by Florida International University, Pinellas County has the fourth highest rate of wage theft in the state.

When unscrupulous businesses cheat their workers our economy suffers.  Honest businesses are losing profits by being forced to compete against unethical businesses that have an unfair advantage. Workers are struggling to pay their bills and cannot afford to put money back into the local economy. All taxpayers suffer when employers refuse to pay their fair share into Social Security and workers’ compensation insurance by misclassifying their employees as independent contractors. The St. Petersburg Wage Theft Prevention Program sees these impacts first-hand on a daily basis.

St. Petersburg is a leader in wage theft prevention. It became the first municipality in Florida to enact a wage theft ordinance. Pinellas County and Hillsborough County have followed our lead and implemented their wage theft ordinances in January. As Tampa Bay works to end the devastating impact of wage theft on our community, this year has demonstrated the ongoing need to raise awareness of new wage theft protections and to strengthen our laws for our region.

Despite the high rate of wage theft in Pinellas County, many workers are not exercising their right to file a complaint and seek the pay that they have earned. There appear to be a number of reasons why this is happening.

First, many workers do not know about the existence of wage theft ordinances. It has been long known that the State of Florida does not enforce wage and hour laws. Desperate employees turn to the U.S. Department of Labor – an overburdened federal agency that cannot even enforce the state minimum wage. We are continuing to raise awareness that workers finally have local laws that protect them.

Second, too often employees lack the information that they need to fill out a complaint, such as not knowing their employer’s contact information or their pay rate. Finally, many workers fear retaliation.

City council is considering options to address these obstacles. For example, we will soon fund a local outreach group to assist workers with filing complaints and educate workers and their employers about the ordinance’s protections. In addition, city council is considering requiring that employers provide basic pay information to their new hires and display posters detailing the Wage Theft Ordinance’s protections. Furthermore, city council is deliberating how to strengthen our current anti-retaliation language.

For workers who are filing complaints, the Wage Theft Prevention Program is producing real results: the majority of complaints are resolved in a mediation. So far this year, employees have collected over $24,000 in back pay. We have also awarded over $106,000 to employees in administrative hearings. Unfortunately, not all employers ordered to pay a judgment actually pay. Our next step is making sure that they do

The solution is simple: we need to get employers and employees to a mediation. Most times that will resolve a case within a few weeks of a complaint being filed. It is also in both parties’ best interests. It is an opportunity for employees to assess the strength of their complaint in a confidential setting. For employers, if they agree that there is a violation, they can pay that day instead of risking a hearing and being ordered to pay three times the amount of the claim and costs to the city. City council is considering a number of options to persuade employers to agree to come to the table.

Eventually, we hope to have a countywide approach to wage theft prevention and merge with Pinellas County. A FIU recent report showed that more than half of Floridians make less than $28,236.00 a year, so the ability to recover lost wages is a problem where we should – and can – provide a sensible and fair way to mediate a solution for our affected citizens. The money workers fairly earn belongs in their own pockets, not the bank account of someone else.  As the leader on this issue, we hope to strengthen our protections and finally put an end to the epidemic of wage theft in our region.

 For more info about wage theft:

 If you worked exclusively within the city limits of St. Petersburg call:

City of St. Petersburg’s Mayor’s Action Line at 727-893-7111.

If you worked anywhere in Pinellas County call: Pinellas County Office of Human Rights at 727-464-4172.

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