County wage theft ordinance survives with death of Bradley bill


Published: Tuesday, May 7, 2013 at 6:07 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, May 7, 2013 at 6:07 p.m.

Alachua County's newly enacted wage-theft ordinance survived the state legislative session, which ended last week and left behind many unsuccessful bills — including one that would have pre-empted the local measure — on the floor of the Florida Senate.

The county became an integral part of a wage-theft dispute that played out this spring in the County Commission boardroom and legislators' Tallahassee offices.

Locally, the resident-led Alachua County Wage Theft Task Force advocated for the County Commission to pass an ordinance that puts the county in the role of mediator between workers and businesses in wage-theft disputes over sub-minimum wage pay, unpaid overtime and other illegal compensation practices.

Meanwhile, state Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, a freshman representative whose district includes Alachua County, filed a bill in Tallahassee that would funnel workers' claims throughout the state into the small-claims court system.

Although a companion bill passed in the Florida House of Representatives, the Senate didn't approve Bradley's measure before the end of the legislative session. If passed, it would have included carve-outs for Miami-Dade and Broward counties but not for Alachua County.

The county's ordinance, which was approved in April and is scheduled to take effect in January, is safe from pre-emption — at least until next year's session.

"Well, the bill I filed gave workers in the state of Florida an easy and effective way to recover wages owed to them. I did my best to help these workers, many of whom were low-wage earners," Bradley said. "The session ended, and we ran out of time."

While his bill's failure left Alachua County's ordinance intact along with the Miami-Dade and Broward County measures, Bradley said that Florida's 64 other counties are left with little recourse for wage-theft claims.

He didn't provide a carve-out for Alachua County, he said, because he thought his bill contained a better system for handling claims and because he needed to match his bill with the House version if it had any chance of passing. Bradley added the Broward exemption to match the House measure.

Mark Sexton, the county's communications coordinator, said commissioners' primary problem with the bill was its pre-emption of home rule.

"They were fine with Senator Bradley's bill if it could have been a floor to which none of the counties could go under," he said. But not a policy ceiling above which they couldn't venture.

Sexton said the county's disagreement with Bradley over wage theft hasn't damaged its relationship with him since it was just one of many issues that were dealt with in Tallahassee this spring.

While Bradley said he feels the courts-driven method is best, the commission followed the example of Miami-Dade and Broward counties by enacting a measure in which a hearing officer rules on claims if they fail the county mediation phase. A worker, however, might need to go to court to recover unpaid wages if the business refuses to honor the hearing officer's ruling.

Task force member Jeremiah Tattersall said he felt "overwhelming relief" knowing the local measure would stand. "It's really nice to be able to breathe freely," he said.

Now the task force will focus its efforts on educating residents about the fledgling ordinance.

The task force also has been contacted by a few other Florida counties interested in considering a wage-theft measure for their communities, he said.

"Alachua County's not going to be the last to pass these ordinances," he said.

Tattersall said he thought Bradley's bill was a half-step in the right direction. It would have been great, he said, if it didn't pre-empt counties from enacting ordinances that handle wage-theft claims outside the court system.

Bradley emphasized the importance of looking beyond the wage-theft issue when considering how Alachua County fared in this legislative session. Although important, he pointed out that wage theft wasn't the only problem facing the county or the state.

He mentioned the Legislature's financial support for the University of Florida as it pursues its goal of becoming a top-10 university as a positive change that came out of this session for the county. He also championed the successful biodiesel legislation he and state Rep. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, introduced this session, which was considered a high priority for Alachua County. The legislation, which was approved by the Legislature, will exempt counties, school districts and municipalities from a requirement that they maintain a fuel wholesaler license to produce biodiesel fuel for internal use.

Bradley emphasized his need, as a legislator, to look at things from a 50,000-foot perspective. "And from a 50,000-foot perspective," he said, "this was a great session for Alachua County."

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

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