The Florida House of Representatives on Wednesday passed a bill filed by state Rep. Tom Goodson, R-Titusville, that prohibits local governments from “adopting or maintaining in effect law, ordinance, or rule for purpose of addressing” wage theft, the practice of employers stiffing workers out of the wages they are owed.

Goodson’s bill would preempt the existing Miami-Dade anti-wage theft ordinance that has successfully recovered $400,000 since September 2010.

An amendment to Goodson’s bill (proposed by Rep. Cynthia Stafford, D-Miami) that aimed to exempt the existing Miami-Dade county wage theft ordinance failed.

Rep. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, filed two amendments – one that “would create a statewide study to determine what the proper solution is for wage theft in the state” and a second that would “provide for a statewide authorization of the Miami-Dade solution regarding the wage theft ordinance.” Both failed.

Rep. Luis Garcia, D-Miami, said that the bill would allow the state legislature to take away Miami-Dade county’s rights to “protect [its] citizens,” urging legislators from Miami to vote against the bill.

A Florida International University report released in January states what many supporters of local anti-wage theft ordinances have previously told the Independent: Existing federal workplace laws do not protect millions of workers, including “hospital, school, or government workers or workers at small, local firms, including contractors for larger companies.” Florida’s minimum wage law also excludes millions of workers “from protections against employers who withhold their earnings.”

Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, told the committee that legislators “are arguing about nothing,” adding that attorneys love wage theft cases because they often collect thousands of dollars in fees from taking them on. Trujillo added that these cases can be brought in the county, circuit, or federal court and that Miami should “not have a quasi-judicial administrative court.”

According to Rep. Stafford, the bill “will hurt workers and place an unfair burden on them” and “on employees who are trying to get what is legally due to them.” Further, said Stafford, it requires a worker to file a “costly, timely, and intimidating” civil action in court, which would only silence them.

Rep. John Julien, D-Miami, said that the Miami-Dade County wage theft ordinance that passed the board of County Commissioners unanimously in 2010 “was trying to protect the least amongst us, the employees that work the fields in Homestead, the members that work the hospitality industry in Miami-Beach.”

Julien added that wage-theft ordinances act as an avenue for those who have had wages of $60 or more stolen from them so that they don’t have to go to court, “where a lot of these poor people [can] does not afford to go.”

“I’m concerned about what we have done here today, and now that we know we don’t have enough jobs, we are about to pass a bill that will no longer allow workers to get their just pay,” said Rep. Barbara Watson, D-Miami Gardens. “If we have an employer who is constantly ripping off his employees, this bill will prohibit employees from filing a class-action lawsuit.”

Rep. Keith Perry, R-Gainseville, argued that such ordinances can hurt businesses and make fraudulent activity easy, adding “help the businesses and they’ll help the workers.”

Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St Petersburg, said the bill is problematic in that it requires that workers come up with court costs and filing fees. “If you’re a business with over $500,000 in gross volume sales you can go ahead and steal the wage from your employee, [and] you’ll [still] have immunity,” he said.

Rep. Lori Berman, D-Delray Beach, said the bill eliminates a victim’s right to a jury trial, forbids class action suits “even when you have numerous workers victimized by the same employer,” and only grants victims the “wages their employer failed to pay.”

“What happens when it results in the person being put out of their apartment?” Berman asked. “Under this law, they wouldn’t be entitled to get those items recovered.”

“In this chamber, we want to help the big guy, we want to do something for the corporations, the job creators,” said Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, adding that ”this bill takes the boot and puts it on the throat of the most desperate folks who need to get paid to feed their family…we’re telling them, ‘you are not important.’”

To close the debate, Goodson said that voting against his bill was akin to voting against the Florida constitution, because “no other courts may be established.”

“This bill doesn’t do anything to your rights, you still have your federal rights, state rights,” said Goodson. “This is only doing exactly what I hear they want to do – municipalities set up their own little non-judiciary hearing to help collect wages.”

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