Residents state their case for wage-theft ordinance
Published: Tuesday, January 8, 2013 at 10:33 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 8, 2013 at 10:33 p.m.
James Ingle remembers when, years ago, a former boss wouldn't hand over his final paycheck.
Ingle, a Gainesville electrician, worked for a local landscaping company at the time, and his employer wasn't returning his calls. He ended up going to the employer's house one morning and arguing with him on the porch.
He was younger and hot-headed then, he told the Alachua County Commission during a meeting on Tuesday. But that deep-seated concern over a missing paycheck is one he knows he isn't alone in experiencing.
"If you're living paycheck to paycheck, there is almost nothing that can make you feel more desperate and more scared than for that paycheck not to show up," he said. "That is food on your table, and that can be a razor-thin margin for a lot of people."
Ingle was among about 40 residents who came to the evening meeting to discuss the potential for a countywide wage-theft ordinance that would give workers a new avenue for help when they have been improperly paid.
The Alachua County Wage Theft Task Force, a coalition of local residents and organizations, gave a presentation to commissioners that highlighted the need for an ordinance similar to one enacted in Miami-Dade County in 2010. Broward County has a similar ordinance.
Wage theft can include losing tip money to employers and being pressured into working off-the-clock, according to task force member Diana Moreno.
There were over 2,000 wage-theft violations reported in Alachua County between 2000 and 2010, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division cited by the task force.
The actual number of local violations is probably higher because many cases aren't reported, Moreno said. Low-wage and immigrant workers tend to be more vulnerable to wage theft.
Businesses that pay their employees fairly can also be hurt because they may face competitors who offer lower prices since they don't fully compensate workers.
Jeremiah Tattersall, a member of the task force, told the commission it takes eight to 10 months to start an investigation on a new wage-theft case through the U.S. Department of Labor.
"We have a failure to adequately enforce our wage laws from the top down," he said.
Miami-Dade County's wage-theft program allows the government to receive complaints from employees and then contact employers about the issue, he said. Most disputes are resolved through this conciliation phase, while the remaining cases go through a hearing process. If the employer loses the hearing, he or she ends up paying more than originally owed, providing an incentive to settle early on.
The commission expressed interest in coordinating with the Gainesville City Commission on a potential ordinance, as well as discussing the matter with the smaller municipalities that could opt into or out of the program.
The commission directed the county manager to report back on the possible workload and costs associated with a wage-theft ordinance in a 4-1 vote, with Commissioner Susan Baird in dissent. It also requested the county attorney provide a summary of related legal issues and a recommendation for an inter-governmental coordination process.
Baird said there are already federal and state wage laws in place and questioned the need to add further layers of bureaucracy to address the issue.
However, Commissioner Mike Byerly said he supported the adoption of an ordinance.
"Having a law and being able to receive justice under that law are two very different things, and that's why we're here tonight," he said.
Commissioner Charles "Chuck" Chestnut IV raised concerns about the costs small businesses could incur if, for example, an employee requests more than they are actually owed.
"I'm a small businessman and sometimes things are hard," he said. "I'm just really concerned about the cost to a small business."
State Rep. Keith Perry, who spoke at the meeting as a business owner, echoed that concern when he asked the commission to consider the ordinance's unintended consequences.
There wouldn't be protections for employers, while employees could make groundless accusations without repercussion, he said.
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