Feds check wage theft; Sun stories prompted probe


In this March 14, 2013 file photo, Nic Bravo waits on patrons at The Jones Eastside, which does not have wage-theft issues, at 401 NE 23rd Ave. in Gainesville. The U.S. Departmetn of Labor plans to launch an investigation to determine whether wage theft is prevalent among local restaurants.

Erica Brough/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Friday, April 5, 2013 at 11:43 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, April 5, 2013 at 11:56 a.m.

The Gainesville Sun's recent coverage of wage theft in Alachua County has led the U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division to plan an upcoming investigation into the issue in the Gainesville-area restaurant industry.

The Jacksonville district office of the Wage and Hour Division plans to launch an investigation to determine if wage theft is a problem among local restaurants, said District Director Michael Young. The office decided to investigate as a result of The Sun's reporting.

Common forms of wage theft include mandatory off-the-clock work and tips-only compensation. The Alachua County Commission is considering an ordinance that would allow the county to mediate worker-employer disputes over unpaid wages.

Typically, the Jacksonville district office targets a specific industry or geographical area for investigation — in this case, both — to determine whether wage theft is widespread. If the initial investigation indicates a problem, the office will expand its investigation accordingly to cover more establishments or a wider region.

"We generally advertise that we're going to do it," Young said of wage-theft investigations. "We're not out to bushwack anyone or trick anyone. We just want to find out whether there are areas in which we need to address compliance."

There are two investigators in the Gainesville office, which is within the Jacksonville district, and they will conduct the initial investigation. One of the investigators speaks Spanish, which will be helpful because it is the primary language for some workers, Young said.

When investigators interview people for this and other investigations, they do not attribute what they are told to anyone directly, he said. The investigation should start within the next two weeks.

Jeremiah Tattersall, a member of the Alachua County Wage Theft Task Force that has advocated for a countywide wage-theft ordinance, said he welcomes the Wage and Hour Division's investigation but pointed out that the issue isn't just a local one.

"This is not a unique problem in Alachua County, and if the (Department of Labor) is finding interest in Gainesville it's only because we've been more public about it," he said.

Tattersall said stronger federal and state enforcement of wage theft would be the best defense against it, but he said the federal department is overburdened and underfunded.

While a federal investigation could make an impact, Tattersall questioned what will happen after it ends.

"I think that's a good thing that we're getting this kind of ... federal attention, but at the same time, it's another Band-Aid. We want something permanent," he said.

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

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