People Engaged in Active Community Efforts (aka PEACE) rejects the notion that they support a wage theft ordinance for Palm Beach County because it favors undocumented workers — contrary to recent claims by a powerful construction industry lobby group.
PEACE is a congregation-based organization with more than 23 members of different religious denominations.
Maxine Cheesman, PEACE member and attorney, tells The Florida Independent her group supports the Palm Beach ordinance because “the current process requires a lawsuit.”
“A lot of times these are small claims, under $100, $200,” she says. “Even if they find a pro-bono lawyer to file the suit, you are looking at people who are living hand to mouth, so they are waiting six moths, a year, to get $200. How does [that] help them?”
Carol Bowen, director of government affairs for Associated Builders and Contractors, recently told the Independent that PEACE supports this ordinance because undocumented workers are afraid to use existing law.
Cheesman says ordinance opponents are trying to push this argument as something limited to undocumented workers because they feel Americans will support it. She says that fear does exist, but emphasizes that the ordinance applies to anyone who has been a victim of wage theft.
“There is a loophole in the law that cover certain employers and some of them are exempt,” Cheesman says. “There are certain thresholds that may or may not be achieved by employers before you can bring [a wage theft] lawsuit.”
If passed, the Palm Beach wage theft ordinance would protect local restaurant and construction workers, among others, from employers who do not pay agreed-upon wages for work done through an administrative process to make the claim easier on workers.
The ordinance faces the opposition of Associated Builders, a powerful 30-member statewide construction coalition that supports a bill filed by state Rep. Tom Goodson, R-Titusville, that would preempt any local wage theft ordinance.
Bowen also said that Associated Builders is working with the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County to address wage theft violation cases.
“I support Legal Aid, but it doesn’t change the process from a civil process to an administrative process,” Cheesman says.
“The model we are considering would have the Office of Equal Opportunity administer the proposed ordinance, with no added cost to the county,” Cheesman says, adding that “they are already doing discrimination and other employment cases.”
Father John D’Mello, also a member of PEACE, tells the Independent the group wants a fast and free track for workers who are cheated out of their wages.
“The current civil litigation process could cost up to $150 and take up to six months,” D’Mello says. “If you’re fighting for $400 or $500 it’s not worth it.”
“We have Florida Minimum Wage Act and Fair Labor Standards Act, which don’t cover many cases,” D’Mello says. “Current laws don’t cover all cases. They don’t cover small construction businesses, small restaurants, house workers, nursing homes, plant nurseries — all these people are excluded.”
D’Mello says that over the last 15 months, there have been at least 2,000 wage theft violations cases in Palm Beach County, adding that wage theft is an epidemic at the local, state and national level.