County OKs wage-theft law


Published: Tuesday, April 16, 2013 at 9:55 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, April 16, 2013 at 9:55 p.m.

The Alachua County Commission adopted a wage-theft ordinance Tuesday evening that allows it to mediate disputes between workers and employers over unpaid wages, but state legislation could pre-empt the ordinance before it goes into effect.

Commissioners have discussed enacting an ordinance since January when the Alachua County Wage Theft Task Force, a local coalition, asked the board to establish one that would handle the issue at the local level. Wage theft commonly includes unpaid overtime, sub-minimum wage compensation and withheld final paychecks.

The commission voted 3-2 to approve the ordinance, with Commissioners Lee Pinkoson and Susan Baird in dissent.

After the commission passed the ordinance, people clapped.

Task force member Jeremiah Tattersall said it felt good to see the group's goal achieved after months of effort. He said he has seen local governments approve measures championed by interest groups or powerful individuals but not by a broad coalition of citizens like the task force.

"It's strange. I haven't seen local government work like this," he said. "I haven't seen a large swath of citizens push something like this."

Although the commission passed its ordinance Tuesday, it could be pre-empted by state legislation that, if passed, would funnel wage-theft complaints into small claims court.

State Sen. Rob Bradley, a Republican whose district includes Alachua County, has filed a bill that would pre-empt Alachua County's ordinance, as well as future ordinances like it that use the hearing-officer method. There is a companion bill in the Florida House of Representatives.

The commission unanimously approved sending a letter to the county's legislative delegation, as well as Florida Senate President Don Gaetz and Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford, asking the state not to pre-empt counties from providing these kinds of wage-theft regulations.

The county's ordinance, which is called the Alachua County Wage Recovery Ordinance, is set to be implemented on Jan. 1, 2014, and applies countywide, but municipalities can opt out.

It allows the county to mediate wage disputes between workers and employers.

If mediation fails, the case can advance to an adjudication phase in which an independent hearing officer will rule in favor of either the business or the worker.

Employers who lose at this level could then have to pay employees twice the amount of back wages owed in addition to covering the county's administrative hearing costs. But the hearing officer's decision is only enforceable by the court system, so workers must go to court if their employers refuse to pay.

The adjudication phase will cost an estimated $10,000 per year.

Pinkoson said he understood the need to address wage theft locally but would prefer an ordinance that directs workers to small claims court if mediation fails, excluding the adjudication phase since a hearing officer's decision is only enforceable in court anyway.

Byerly argued that relying on the courts alone would be problematic because many people would question whether to spend the time and effort to navigate what they consider a complex legal system if they aren't sure their cases have a good shot at success.

Baird said the county could fight wage theft at its root if it spent as much time and resources on encouraging economic development as it has on this measure because it would bring in more jobs for workers. The best thing to do if an employer treats you unfairly, she said, is to quit and find a better job.

A few people laughed when she said that, but Baird emphasized her point.

"The best solution is options," she said.

Most of the people who attended the commission meeting favored the county's ordinance.

"We've got an opportunity to fix this problem locally," said local resident James Ingle. "To lead the state and to make sure that what we say locally continues to matter."

About 40 people came to the commission meeting, and Ingle asked those who supported the ordinance to stand up. Most did, but not all.

Kamal Latham, vice president of public policy for the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce, told the commission the chamber believes the best way to deal with wage theft is through state-level measures, not local ordinances.

Workers will be able to file wage-theft claims with the county after the ordinance is implemented on Jan. 1, 2014.

Employees can file a complaint no later than 180 days after the date their wages were supposed to be paid, according to the ordinance. But they must first try to resolve the issue by contacting their employers within 60 days of that date.

Anyone with a claim for unpaid wages due on or after Tuesday and before Jan. 1, 2014, can file it with the county by June 30, 2014.

County Attorney Dave Wagner said employers can't retaliate against employees for filing a claim over unpaid wages they are owed.

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

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