County weighs two options in wage-theft ordinance


Published: Tuesday, March 12, 2013 at 11:36 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, March 12, 2013 at 11:36 p.m.

As the Alachua County Commission crafts a local wage theft ordinance, residents worry it may result in a watered-down, ineffective solution.

The board discussed a staff proposal Tuesday evening for a countywide ordinance that would establish the county as a mediator between employees and employers in disputes over unpaid wages. Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties already have developed their own remedies for the workforce-wide problem.

The Alachua County Wage Theft Task Force, a local coalition, has spent months building community support for an ordinance. Common forms of wage theft include unpaid overtime and withheld final paychecks.

Alachua County's proposal mixes aspects of Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties' programs and adds new rules of its own. Palm Beach County handles wage complaints through the court system, while Miami-Dade County adjudicates disputes through a hearing officer if necessary.

Alachua County staff made several suggestions that commissioners agreed with, including requiring that employees file a complaint within 180 days of the incident and conducting preliminary review and mediation of cases through the county's Equal Opportunity Office.

The primary point of contention centers on whether the county should leave ruling on a dispute to county court or adjudicate it through a hearing officer who can make a decision, albeit a legally non-binding one.

Under staff's initial proposal, the county would mediate and leave decisions to the county court. If an employer refuses to pay back wages at the mediation level, the employee's only recourse would be to go to court or the U.S. Department of Labor, County Attorney Dave Wagner said.

Commissioner Lee Pinkoson said he preferred mediation to provide direction on whether an employee's wage theft claim has merit because the court system is already established to rule on such cases.

Pinkoson was also concerned that adjudication would mean higher costs for the county.

Byerly argued that the legal process in place is "dysfunctional." He said mediation is successful because of the threat of adjudication, and without that he wouldn't expect employers to respond to the county's overtures.

"I don't want to set up a process that doesn't do anything," he said.

Several citizens cautioned the commission against enacting a watered-down ordinance and voiced support for adjudication rather than mediation.

Local resident Sheila Payne questioned why a business would bother with mediation.

"I mean, why would an employer go through the mediation process and just go, 'Thanks for the heads up. That's nice,'" she said.

She also noted that people owed $200 or even $400 won't want to go to court and pay those fees just to recoup that money. The point of an ordinance was to give the county the ability to adjudicate wage theft disputes, she said.

Citizens and commissioners also debated the influence that state politics should have in creating a local ordinance.

State Sen. Rob Bradley, a Republican whose district includes Alachua County, has filed Senate Bill 1216, which would pre-empt future county wage theft ordinances that would adjudicate disputes through a hearing officer, as Miami-Dade County does, and instead direct employees to go to court.

Equal Opportunity Manager Jacqueline Chung said staff's initial proposal was designed to work within the parameters of this proposed bill.

Local task force member Diana Moreno became choked up as she spoke during public comment, saying, "It really angers me that somebody from the state level would come in and try to take away home rule and try to undo all of the hard work of all of these people. This is a protection that goes beyond business interests. This is a protection that is for workers and those who are the least among us..."

Fellow task force member Jeremiah Tattersall emphasized the importance of finding a solution that addresses the local community's circumstances rather than the Florida political climate.

"We have to be careful with how we proceed here because if we toe the line of what state politics want us to do then we're going to have a very weak ordinance that's not useful," he said.

After hearing from many local residents, the commission voted unanimously to direct staff to return at its next regular meeting in two weeks with a draft ordinance.

The mediation-versus-adjudication dispute needs to be resolved, and the commission remains undecided on other issues, including whether to establish penalties for frivolous employee claims or include an anti-retaliation rule to protect employees from upset employers.

Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or morgan.watkins@gvillesun.com.

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