MIAMI -- Businesses and workers-rights advocates are fighting over a bill that would set uniform state standards for employees who say they haven't been paid their full wages to seek compensation.
The bill would require workers to file a claim through the courts and would limit damages to the amount they are owed, with no clause of punitive damages. It also would preclude cities and counties from enacting their own systems, with an exception for Miami-Dade County, which would be allowed to keep most of the system it enacted in 2010.
Florida is one of the few states without a labor department, which is where most wage disputes are settled elsewhere.
The Florida Retail Federation says a consistent statewide system is necessary. The federation, which represents over 7,000 businesses, challenged Miami-Dade's ordinance in the courts but lost. Samantha Padgett, general counsel for the federation, rejected critics' assertion that the bill would make recovering lost wages more difficult.
"The small claims court system is designed for people to be able to navigate without legal representation," she said.
Opponents say the bill would make claiming unpaid wages costly and cumbersome. Many workers at low-paid jobs live paycheck to paycheck and cannot afford an attorney nor take time away from work to be in court, they say.
Jeanette Smith, executive director of the South Florida Interfaith Worker Justice organization, said the bill would give employers an incentive to engage in wage theft, as it provides no real penalty for employers beyond paying back wages.
Workers "go through all this, and they cannot even get damages," Smith said. She cited hospitality, construction, security and agriculture as some of the fields with the highest rates of wage theft.
Broward County Mayor Kristin Jacobs told a recent hearing that wage theft "is a huge problem" in her county. "There are companies where not paying workers has become their business model," she said. "I call them pirates."
Jacobs said that if a provision is going to be carved out for Miami-Dade, Broward should get one, too.
The bill has been filed by Rep. Tom Goodson, R-Titusville, who has filed similar pre-emption bills over the past three years, though this is the first to outline a compensatory procedure for wage theft claims. Goodson did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
The bill requires that workers first notify employers that they intend to file a civil action and specify the amount owed and the dates and hours worked. The employer would then have 15 days to pay or otherwise resolve the complaint. The claim must be filed within one year of the date the work was performed, and workers must prove wage theft "by a preponderance of evidence" -- the facts would have to show that the theft was more likely to have happened than not.
"That's not an overwhelming burden to overcome," Padgett said.
While Miami-Dade's ordinance would be allowed to remain in effect for smaller companies, it would not apply to any company with an annual gross volume of sales or business of more than $500,000. Those would fall under the state law.
Under Miami-Dade's regulations, an employee can file a claim through the county Small Business Development's Wage Theft Unit, which then contacts the employer to mediate a resolution. If a settlement can't be reached, the employer is sent a complaint and a hearing is scheduled. So far almost $600,000 for 471 workers has been recovered through mediation, and another $1 million to 411 through an administrative hearing process, according to South Florida Interfaith Worker Justice.
Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, said most people who have used Miami-Dade's process don't have other recourse and cannot afford a lawyer.
"There are other counties considering following Miami-Dade's lead," he said. "I don't think that's good policy to exclude Miami-Dade only."
Rodriguez said Goodson's bill "goes way beyond pre-emption. This really is aimed at rolling back existing rights that employees have."
An analysis by the National Employment Law Project, a New York-based advocate for workers, said the bill would penalize employees for company failure to keep accurate records.
The group concluded that the bill "would severely impact the rights of low-wage workers and their families and local economies that rely on these wages to stay afloat."