Thou Shalt Not Steal

17 Nov

By Jeanette Smith, South Florida Interfaith Worker Justice, Member of Florida Wage Theft Task Force 

Today marks one year since Miami-Dade County publicly declared a Day Against Wage Theft. Wage theft, or the nonpayment of wages earned, affects us all. Families suffer when earnings are too low to meet basic needs. Local businesses and economies are denied vital stimulus that would flow from the additional spending of workers had they been paid their earned salaries. Honest businesses are undermined by unscrupulous competitors who practice wage theft. Government at all levels is affected, as they are denied tax revenues generated by higher earnings and when many working families must resort to public programs to survive.

Last year, our County adopted an unprecedented ordinance to protect workers from wage theft, the first one in Florida and model legislation for many other communities throughout the country. Thanks to it, in only one year the County’s Wage Theft Program collected over $350,000 in unpaid wages through conciliation, and since January, over $415,000 has been awarded to workers through administrative hearings.

The victims of wage theft have ranged from construction workers to teachers to home health care workers and others. Claims have been as low as sixty dollars and as high as thousands of dollars. Mayor Carlos Gimenez recently lauded the program as “an effective tool for promoting economic security and dignity”. With the over one million dollars in claims still pending, it is obvious that wage theft is an epidemic in our community.

Wage theft used to be the crime wave that no one spoke about, but thanks to the County’s Wage Theft Program and to media exposure, public awareness of this odious practice is on the rise. Over 100 workers in Medley recently protested outside the furniture factory where they worked claiming their unpaid salaries. Last Friday, three workers who had been victims of wage theft at a pizzeria in Homestead organized a protest in front of the shop.

Businesses owners have also praised the program with a local arborist, Ron Von Paulus, stating that “It’s hard enough in a tough economy to run a business, but when you have a criminal next to you who isn’t paying his employees, it makes it tough to compete.” Small businesses, the backbone of a solid middle class economy, are particularly hard hit when unscrupulous businesses use wage theft as part of their business model.

Somewhat perplexingly, the Florida Retail Federation (FRF), with the support of Associated Builders and Contractors, pursued a bill during the 2011 legislative session that would have preempted the Miami-Dade wage theft ordinance and prevented any other counties from passing their own ordinances. Fortunately, last year’s bill did not succeed, but, once again, at the urging of the FRF, similar bills were filed last week by two central Florida state legislators, Senator David Simmons and Representative Tom Goodson. The legislators want to prohibit Florida municipalities from “adopting or maintaining” local ordinances that crack down on wage theft.

On November 3, the Board of County Commissioners, wary of another attempt to preempt the local ordinance, unanimously passed two resolutions, one urging the Florida legislature, to oppose any preemption attempts and the other to urge the passage of a statewide wage theft law, because “wage theft is a problem not limited to Miami-Dade County.”

Miami-Dade County should be commended for taking a stand against this egregious practice that undermines not just our county, but also our state. We urge all legislators, specially the Miami-Dade County Delegation, to take a stand against wage theft. Wage theft is bad for business, bad for families, and bad for Florida.

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The Wage Theft Ordinance was first drafted by the Wage Theft Task Force, a group of community organizations, labor unions, immigrant rights groups, faith based organizations, lawyers, and university researchers who recognized the need for action on this growing problem in Miami-Dade County and who worked with the Board of County Commissioners to pass the ordinance, which established the County’s Wage Theft Program in 2010.

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