St. Pete poised to pass wage theft ordinance in the nick of time

Being poor sucks.

Being poor despite putting in hours of honest work because your boss won't pay you sucks even more. That's why the city is trying to fight wage theft before state lawmakers try to tell them they can't.

Every day, said John Dubrule, chief operating officer at Gulfcoast Legal Services, his firm hears from someone who wasn't paid the full amount that was agreed upon when he or she was hired.

“We just got a call right before I came here today from somebody who's a waitress, and worked 90 hours and was given a $5 paycheck and was told someday in the future they would get their tips, after they cleared credit cards,” Dubrule said Tuesday morning.

On Thursday, St. Pete City Council members will weigh an ordinance that, if they waited any longer, could get preempted by the state.

On the steps of City Hall Tuesday morning, Dubrule, along with Councilwoman Darden Rice and other supporters of the pending ordinance aimed at curbing wage theft, touted the measure as an matter of basic decency as well as economics. It's the latest in a string of worker-related ordinances the council has passed, including bumping the minimum wage to $12.50 an hour for city workers.

“On Thursday, we have the opportunity to extend our reach, to look out for those who don't work for the city of St. Petersburg, but are the victims of something we don't want in our city: wage theft,” said St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman.

Rice said Pinellas ranks third in the state for wage theft, which can mean making employees work off the clock, paying workers at a lower than agreed upon wage or not paying them at all. Over 2012 and 2013, she said, about 15,000 Pinellas County residents filed federal wage theft claims at about $500 each, totaling $7.5 million, but Rice said she thinks there are probably two or three times more cases actually happening, since wage theft so often goes unreported.

After all, there's little that can be done about it in places that don't have an ordinance that sets up a course of action victims can take that won't cost them tons of money by way of legal fees. In 2000, the state got rid of its Department of Labor and Employment Security, the agency that would have gone after people who commit wage theft. That's why such ordinances are vital at the local level, Rice said, as government in places like Miami-Dade County have realized.

“So there are very few avenues for redress, and a combination of inadequate enforcement and exemptions leaves employees vulnerable to wage theft," Rice said. “A local wage theft ordinance gives individuals the opportunity to take action on their own to recover lost wages from their employers through an administrative process, rather than having to find a lawyer to pursue a costly court case to enforce their right.”

The ordinance outlines the process for determining whether wage theft has actually occurred. The employer is notified and asked to provide payroll records. If it's determined that wage theft did indeed occur in an amount of $60 or higher, the employer has to pay the worker the wages owed. Assuming it wasn't an instance of human error, the employer can get fined up to twice the amount of wages he or she owes.

Standing behind the podium among the measure's supporters was Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch. He said the commission is poised to start developing its own wage-theft ordinance.

“It's anti-poverty, it's economic opportunity, it's simply paying people what they've earned,” he said. “I don't really see any downsides. I just want to make sure the businesses are protected.”

The commission would have to move fast; there are just over two weeks left in the Florida legislative session, and lawmakers very well could pass a measure that would bar local governments from creating such ordinances, just as it may do on those regarding local hiring.

“I'm not surprised by anything that happens at the state level when you can stand and say you're going to declare war against healthcare expansion," Welch said. "Council member Rice was correct. We need to handle this at the local level to the extent we can.”

In addition to being a matter of basic decency, the economics make sense to the ordinance's supporters.

“The money that goes to low-wage employees is almost always circulated back to the local economy," Rice said. "Money that goes to employers can get circulated back to the local economy, too, or it can go to a vacation in Hawaii or investments overseas. But we do know for sure that low-wage workers usually, almost always circulate their money locally. And at any rate, the money belongs in the pocket of the employee who earned the wages rightfully in the first place.”

And if one thinks about it, preventing employers from neglecting to cut paychecks for workers means those workers have a better shot at not having to rely on social services — and make rent every month.

“All this is very important to the workers that are just a paycheck away from being one of the homeless that we see here in St. Petersburg," Dubrule said.

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