April 16 hearing set for wage-theft ordinance


Published: Tuesday, March 26, 2013 at 9:41 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, March 26, 2013 at 9:41 p.m.

The Alachua County Commission could pass a wage-theft ordinance next month, establishing a local process through which workers can recover unpaid wages from their employers.

The commission -- sans Commissioner Susan Baird, who was absent -- voted 3-1 Tuesday, with Commissioner Lee Pinkoson in dissent, to hold an April 16 public hearing at which commissioners will consider passing the measure to allow the county to handle wage disputes between workers and employers.

Unpaid overtime, withheld final paychecks and tips-only compensation are common forms of wage theft.

The current version of the county ordinance would adjudicate complaints through a hearing officer. Miami-Dade and Broward counties, which both have wage-theft ordinances, use that method, while Palm Beach County handles the issue through the court system.

Pinkoson said he voted against considering the ordinance in April not because he disagrees with the proposal overall but because he doesn't support including a hearing phase in the measure.

Commissioners debated whether using a hearing officer would give the ordinance more "teeth" than employing the court-driven method espoused in legislation proposed by North Florida Republican Sen. Rob Bradley.

Commissioner Charles "Chuck" Chestnut IV said without the hearing-officer approach, "there's really no teeth" to the ordinance.

However, an employer doesn't have to pay a worker the back wages owed, plus damages and county administrative fees, if the county-appointed hearing officer rules against him or her. If the employer refuses to pay, the employee and county government, respectively, must go to court to recoup the money each of them is owed.

Pinkoson said initial, county-managed mediation makes sense, but he said the hearing phase lacks the impact that Chestnut suggested it had since the court system is necessary to make an unwilling business pay.

"But if we really want teeth, somehow it's got to go to the court, because we can't make them pay," Pinkoson said.

Local residents who spoke during public comment favored implementing a hearing phase rather than a direct mediation-to-court process.

Kathy Kidder, president of the Alachua County/Gainesville League of Women Voters, said her organization supports the hearing method and applauds the commission for both recognizing and addressing the problem of wage theft.

"We stand with you in promoting a strong message that Alachua County believes in economic justice for workers and fairness for honest employers," she said.

Robert Prather, chairman of the Alachua County Democratic Party, said he also supports the enactment of a wage-theft measure similar to Miami-Dade County's hearing-officer approach.

Marihelen Wheeler, a public school teacher, pointed out the importance of protecting young people just entering the workforce who are trying to build careers.

"The business world is quick to demand justice when it comes to regulation by the government," she said. "What's being ignored are those who make those businesses run and those who would patronize those businesses if they could afford to do so."

Jeremiah Tattersall, a member of the Alachua County Wage Theft Task Force, acknowledged that the county's efforts could be rendered redundant by Sen. Bradley's bill, if it becomes law, or another state measure. But until then, he said, this community can't rely on politicians in Tallahassee telling it what to do on its own turf.

Commissioner Mike Byerly said he urged Bradley to think of his bill as the floor below which no county's efforts can sink, rather than a ceiling above which none can venture.

"The concept of home rule is very, very important here," he said.

On April 16, the commission could approve the version of the ordinance presented at Tuesday's meeting with some tweaks that it directed county staff to make.

The current version of the ordinance would implement the hearing-officer method. Under that process, workers could bring a claim to the county within 180 days of an incident along with sufficient evidence after notifying their employer. Then, the county would mediate.

If that fails, a hearing officer would rule on the case and could require the employer to pay twice the back wages owed in addition to the cost of the hearing. That decision, however, would be enforceable only by the court system.

A rough ballpark estimate of the cost for the hearing officer's services alone is about $10,000 a year, County Attorney Dave Wagner said.

The ordinance would apply countywide, but Alachua County's municipalities could opt out if they wish.

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

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