Carol Bowen, director of government affairs for Florida’s Associated Builders and Contractors, confirmed yesterday that her organization is a member of a coalition of construction groups, with at least 30 members involved in all aspects of building and contracting, that supports the “Wage Protection” bill filed by state Rep. Tom Goodson, R-Titusville, and opposes a proposed Palm Beach County wage theft ordinance.

Goodson’s bill would stop cities and counties from passing local laws to help workers recover wages they are cheated out of by employers.

“We are without a doubt against wage theft,” Bowen said. “People who underpay should be punished. They hurt business. There are unscrupulous contractors who low-bid because they plan not to pay their employees, but we believe in streamlined processes and state and federal law already have the authority to deal with these issues.”

Bowen said that after working with the coalition, the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach has agreed to address wage theft claims and seek resolution.

“The white-collar criminal division of the attorney general is aware of wage theft and agreed to monitor the situation and work with Legal Aid to handle the cases appropriately,” she said. “This tells me that the existing laws allow the people affected to bring their claims. … We don’t need additional government offices.”

Bowen said Associated Builders is worried that members who work throughout the state would need a full-time department to learn all 67 ordinances and processes.

Jeanette Smith, executive director of South Florida Interfaith Worker Justice, a member organization of the South Florida Wage Theft Task Force, wrote The Florida Independent via email about a local wage theft rule passed in Miami-Dade County that would be threatened by Goodson’s bill. She wrote:

There seems to be some confusion about the purpose of the Miami-Dade ordinance. The ordinance does not establish a new regulation but simply sets up an accessible process to address local wage theft cases that do not fall under the jurisdiction of existing federal laws. It’s the most basic of agreements — people complete their work and should be paid for that work.

When asked if the laws cited by the Goodson bill protect local workers, Bowen said Associated Builders research, as well as conversations with Legal Aid and other attorneys, shows that current state and federal laws cover employees in Florida at any level.

Jose Rodriguez, staff attorney for Florida Legal Services, a member of the South Florida Wage Theft Task Force, recently wrote to the Independent via email

[Goodson’s bill] cites the federal and state minimum wages – both, even if properly enforced, leave large segments of the working population unprotected – and then cites a number of other federal wage and hour laws all of which are tangential at best since they only apply to either contractors doing business with the federal government or to industries employing farm labor.

Asked about a November 2010 Florida International University/Research Institute for Social and Economic Policy study that shows the construction industry ranks among the top three for reported wage theft claims, Bowen said she was not privy to any data.

“I can speak for ABC members: Any scrupulous employer will not participate in wage theft,” she says. “Those that do this are not members of associations, they are out there by themselves.”

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