Wage Theft in Alachua County: Too Often, Too Common

by thomas baker

When someone breaks into your home and steals your property, there is a well known number to call to report the crime, and there is a legal system to come to your defense. When hard at work and owed money by your employer, what is the number to call when the check does not arrive?

Lauren Walls had very few resources at hand after the restaurant she worked for five years ago stole her tips.

“The cooks got tipped out, the bussers got tipped out, and then there was a mystery tip out that did not add up,” Walls said.

The more she asked about where the tips went to, she said, “the more I was taken off the schedule.” Walls did not receive her last pay check after she quit, though owed a few hundred dollars; between school and looking for her next job, she did not feel like it was worth hiring a lawyer over.

Unpaid overtime, paid under minimum wage, misclassification as an independent contractor, forced to work off the clock or during meal breaks, altered employee time cards, deducting money from paychecks, getting paid late, or not getting paid at all – in the state of Florida, there are few options to recover wages legally owed to employees.

Over the past decade, the Federal Department of Labor, Wage and Hour Division, has reported thousands of victims of wage theft and has recovered millions of dollars in Alachua County alone. Besides hiring a lawyer to recover owed wages, the only organization to report wage theft to in Alachua County is the federal government.

As disclosed in a Florida International University report on wage theft, undercover reporters in Miami-Dade County found it will take up to 10 months for a case to be opened and years to recover the wages due to the backlog of violations. In 2010, Florida had just one federal wage theft investigator for every 1.2 million workers, over eight times the national average.

What makes this a unique problem to Florida is that the federal government has limited jurisdiction for many wage theft claims, and there is no state agency to mediate the return of legally owed wages. In the early 2000s, Florida dismantled its Department of Labor and Employment Security (DOLES) and replaced it with two non-profit corporations, Workforce Florida and the Agency for Workforce Innovation. Neither of these organizations deals with wage and hour complaints.

Though the state can investigate wage theft violations pertaining to laws like Florida’s minimum wage law, since 2004, when the law was enacted, there has not been a single suit filed by the state.

The concern prompted Florida organizations and counties to act. In 2010, Miami-Dade County became the first county in Florida to pass a wage theft ordinance, which is a way for the county to process cases without having to go through the federal government.

The successful trial run of Miami-Dade’s ordinance prompted Broward County on Oct. 23 of this year to become the second county in Florida to pass the ordinance. Now Pinellas, Palm Beach and Orange counties are working on similar actions.

Over the summer of 2012, the Alachua County Wage Theft Task Force was founded to work on passing the ordinance here in Alachua County.

On Oct. 24, the Alachua County Wage Theft Task Force and the Alachua County Labor Party gave a presentation in the Downtown Library that illustrated the problem of wage theft locally. They described how the ordinance will operate, if passed, and how the ordinance will be good for businesses.

County Commissioners Hutchinson and Chestnut, who support the ordinance, asked questions with the audience about the specifics of the wage theft ordinance. Commissioner Byerly, who was not at the event, also said he supports an ordinance in Alachua County.

Alex Cardelle, a member of the Alachua County Wage Theft Task Force and a former intern with Miami-Dade County’s Wage Theft Program, said the ordinance works because it is “designed to be unbiased, neutral, and mediate between the employee and employer.” He said this is done by looking at the evidence of an employee’s claim before the employer is contacted.

Cardelle said that citizenship status is not a criterion to receive the county’s service, though the work must have been done in the county and within the last year.

Before the Miami-Dade ordinance, Cardelle said, small businesses were more likely to hire lawyers to fight wage theft claims in court, which is both expensive and time consuming. The mediation process of the ordinance is a fast-track and inexpensive way to settle the claim since most cases are the result of misunderstandings or errors, said Cardelle. The program will often refer businesses to other agencies that offer small business support.

“We help identify problems in the small business, such as with payroll,” Cardelle said.

In today’s work climate, some businesses may feel they must work around the system to keep a competitive edge. For businesses that play by the rules and are paying their employees fairly in accordance of the law, this can often result with an economic disadvantage to their unlawful competitor. Ultimately, a wage theft ordinance in Alachua County will keep everyone playing by the same set of rules.

As word of the Alachua County Wage Theft Task Force has gotten out into the community, the Labor Party office has received phone calls from folks looking to report a violation and finding there is not yet a place to report wage theft. The number to call to report a wage theft violation still needs to be formed by the citizens of Alachua and the County Commission.

Co-founder of the Alachua County Wage Theft Task Force, Jeremiah Tattersall, sums it up: “The wage theft ordinance helps honest businesses compete fairly, helps exploited workers recover their much needed wages, and helps make Gainesville a decent place to work and have a business.”
To find out more about wage theft in Alachua County or Florida and how to participate in the Alachua County Wage Theft Task Force, go to www.ACWTTF.org.

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